A new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that many of the most popular children's movies send mixed messages about weight, eating habits and obesity, with references to dieting and "fat" body parts shown alongside characters eating unhealthy foods and partaking in sedentary activities.

In 2008's animated smash "Kung Fu Panda," main character Po is repeatedly told that he'll never make it as a martial artist due to his "fat butt," "flabby arms" and "ridiculous belly." Other films such as "Despiscable Me," "Shrek the Third," and "Happy Feet" have characters repeating similar sentiments and making fun of others due to their size and weight while depicting unhealthy activities and eating.

"These children's movies offer a discordant presentation about food, exercise and weight status, glamorizing unhealthy eating and sedentary behavior yet condemning obesity itself," Eliana M. Perrin, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine and corresponding author of the study, said in a UNC Health Care press release. The latest study was published online Dec. 6, 2013 in the journal Obesity.

The researchers analyzed the top-grossing G and PG-rated animal films from 2006 to 2010 for a total of 20 movies, studying segments from the movies "for the prevalence of key nutrition and physical behaviors corresponding to the American Academy of Pediatrics' obesity prevention recommendations for families, prevalence of weight stigma, assessment of the segment as healthy, unhealthy or neutral, and free-text interpretations."

Of the 20 films, 26 percent of films with food segments showed exaggerated portion sizes, 51 percent showed depictions of unhealthy snacks, and 19 percent showed characters consuming unhealthy beverages. Meanwhile, 40 percent of the films showed characters watching television, 35 percent showed them using a computer, and 20 percent depicted them playing video games. Overall, 70 percent of the films analyzed had weight-related stigmatizing content.

"These popular children's movies had significant 'obesogenic' content, and most contained weight-based stigma," the study authors concluded. "They present a mixed message to children: promoting unhealthy behaviors while stigmatizing the behaviors' possible effects.

The children's films analyzed in the study, via EurekaAlert.org