Are Tubby Cartoon Characters Making Your Kids Fat?

Illustration for article titled Are Tubby Cartoon Characters Making Your Kids Fat?

If your kid loves Garfield or Cathy (don’t knock it, there are dozens of us) you may want to keep a careful eye on their eating habits. New research suggests that lovably chubby cartoon characters might be encouraging children to pig out more and worry about health less. And, according to the study, it’s all unconscious.

In order to determine whether cartoon characters had any influence on eating behaviors, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed some eighth-graders pictures of either a fit “jelly-bean-like” character or its more jolly and rotund sibling (see here). Then, after asking each of the sixty kids to comment on the cartoon before them, each kid was invited to have some chocolate or Starburst. The results were surprising.

From The New York Times:

Children who had seen the rotund cartoon character helped themselves to more than double the number of candies as children shown the lean character, taking 3.8 candies on average, compared with 1.7 taken by children shown the lean bean character. (Children in a comparison group shown an image of a coffee mug took 1.5 candies on average.)


Not all is lost, however. It turns out that while larger cartoon characters may influence kids to eat more (I had no idea what lasagna was when I read Garfield, but I sure knew I wanted it), parents can help counteract that by reminding kids about making healthy choices. The Times reports that in another experiment, elementary school children were shown thin and fat cartoon characters and then offered cookies. Some of the kids were asked to think about healthy eating habits before eating the cookies and some were asked after. The results showed that talking to children about their health habits before giving them cookies changed how much kids ate.

Remarkably, the children who were asked about healthy habits before doing the taste test ate fewer cookies — even if they had first been exposed to the rotund cartoon character. Those who were shown the rotund figure ate 4.2 cookies on average if they were asked about healthy habits after eating the cookies, compared to three cookies if they were asked about healthy habits before doing the taste test. Children who saw the normal weight character and who were asked about healthy habits after the taste test also ate about three cookies.

Of course, researchers might not have controlled for the fact that the children were eating more after seeing the rotund character because it’s terrifying and eating is a normative coping mechanism when presented with something sad or scary. Still, there’s something to be said about reminding kids about eating healthy and not having the television on when they’re having dinner (probably works for adults, too?). As Margaret C. Campbell, lead researcher on the study, points out ““There are things on television that are influencing children’s choices.” (Which is why I always had a desire to eat Meow Mix as a kid, right?)

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Fun story: in the 1980s, my father’s weekly column was syndicated by United Features Syndicate, the same syndicate who sold Garfield. Whenever my dad would go into NYC to meet with his editor, he’d come back with a new Garfield book or two for me. (Many of them were autographed, which was pretty cool.) I had the whole collection by the time I was 12 years old.

I now weigh 658 pounds. (Just kidding—I wear the same pants’ size I wore in high school.)