The Tube, Food and You

A new report says snacking on junk food while watching TV encourages unhealthy eating habits in kids

May 14, 2012 | By Alice Park for TIME
ERIC RAPTOSH PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES

What you see is what you eat, according to the latest study to confirm that watching TV encourages children to eat more junk food. But the researchers say there may be an easy way to stop unhealthy snacking in front of the tube: put healthier foods within easy reach.

Leah Lipsky and Ronal Iannotti are staff scientists at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver  National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. They worked on the study, which was reported this week in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. The report says that for every hour of television children watch, they are 8% less likely to eat fruit every day, 18% more likely to eat candy, and 16% more likely to eat fast food. Those results are similar to previous studies that have linked TV viewing with unhealthy eating habits among kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that kids should not watch more than two hours of TV per day.
VANESSA DAVIES—GETTY IMAGES
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that kids should not watch more than two hours of TV per day.

Encouraging Healthy Snacking

The reasons for the link between watching TV and eating junk food aren’t surprising: young people watching TV are exposed to more advertising for unhealthy foods—such as fast food or sodas—than commercials for fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies show that kids who watch a lot of TV are more likely to prefer eating foods high in sugar, salt and fat, even when they aren’t watching TV. Plus, when children spend more time in front of the screen, they are also less likely to be exercising or engaging in healthy physical activity.

The researchers also found that some kids who snacked in front of the tube increased the amount of fruit they ate. It all depended on what was available and within reach. “Of course, the link was nowhere near as strong as that between TV watching and the increased (eating) of candy, soda and fast food in general,” says Lipsky. “But it kind of suggests that if you have other options available—and don’t have the unhealthy options available—then children might be encouraged to possibly eat more fruit.”

That’s the message that the Lipsky and Iannotti hope that parents will take away from their report. The study involved more than 12,000 students in grades 5 through 10. The researchers asked the kids about how much time they spent every day watching TV, using the computer or playing video games. They also asked the students to report on how often they consumed various foods, including fruits, vegetables, soda and fast food.

The more TV kids watched, the more unhealthy food they ate. The results suggest that the problem is deeper than kids over-snacking out of boredom while sitting in front of the TV or computer. TV watching can set kids up for a deeper pattern of poor eating habits. When combined with lack of physical activity, this can cause obesity and serious health issues including type 2 diabetes, heart problems and sleep disorders.

Lipsky and Iannotti recommend that parents limit the amount of time kids spend in front of a TV or computer — the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no more than two hours a day for children over two years old. The researchers also recommend that parents try to encourage healthier snacking habits during TV and computer time by giving kids healthy snacks such as fruits and nuts.