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Concern grows on the use of cartoon characters that entice children to eat badly
Using a generational icon, say, recruiting Shrek to get kids to eat, is not new. The gimmick has worked for years. Doctors and parents have applauded the tactic when, for example, stamped images of Sesame’s Street’s Elmo endorsed packages of broccoli. Controversy arises when licensed characters promote victuals arguably considered to be junk food – those low in nutrients, like gummy bears and graham crackers.
A recent study conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and published in the June 21 issue of Pediatrics (doi:10.1542/peds.2009-3433) confirmed the rationale of many North American retailers – that to spend $1.6 billion annually on wooing children is well worth it – at least when it comes to dollars + cents. Nutritionally, it’s another matter. When pre-school and Grade 1 kids were asked to choose foods showing Shrek, Dora the Explorer and Scooby Doo on the packaging compared to unadorned choices, not surprisingly, most opted for the boxes with the cartoon characters, despite the identical content.
This trend had certain groups up in arms. Corporate Accountability International, an advocacy group out of Boston, has begun the “Retire Ronald” campaign. Rather than symbolizing Ronald McDonald House of Charities, the 50-year-old clown these days appears to promote poor nutrition and food choices, according to the organization. “Ronald McDonald is a pied piper drawing youngsters all over the world to food that’s high in fat, sodium and calories,” says retired physician and volunteer Alfred David Klinger.
Happy Meals – food geared to the under 12-year-old set – are also under the gun. Historically, McDonald’s has used toys and games to attract their youngest clientele. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is planning to wage a lawsuit against McDonald’s for selling toys. “McDonald’s marketing has the effect of conscripting children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to nag their parents to bring them to McDonald’s,” says organization member Stephen Garner.
In 2006, their first lawsuit against mega-chain Kellogg for promoting poor quality nutrition to children resulted in products with higher nutritional value.
Even Disney, who partnered with McDonald’s from 1997-2006, allowing the food chain to use their cinematic characters in their toy line, eventually had second thoughts and ended that tie, in order to endorse healthier choices.
So, where are Mom and Dad in all this? Everyone agrees that they should be doing more to guide their children towards healthier eating habits. But in many cases, they themselves are eating as badly, if not worse – with no need for encouragement from SpongeBob SquarePants, Buzz Lightyear, Diego, or that irritating little red racecar Lightning McQueen. We can make junk food less enticing, but kids won't eat healthier food unless it's served at home. Such a reminder by physicians will be much appreciated down the road, by the kids as adults, and our healthcare system.
Posted by David Elkins and others at 2:43 PM
Labels: junk food