TV viewing can undermine parents’ efforts to keep kids fit

Parents who stock their kitchens with healthy food, limit eating out and ensure that their children stay active may overlook a threat to their efforts to keep their kids lean: the television.

As a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows, children and teens get bombarded with thousands of food ads yearly. So many, in fact, that they add up to 51 hours of viewing time yearly for kids 8 to 12; nearly 41 hours for those 13 to 17; and nearly 30 hours among the 2- to 7-year-old group, the report finds.

That might not be a problem if the ads promoted healthy fare such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. But the report — the largest ever conducted of food marketing to children and teens — highlights how TV commercials mostly tout junk food.

Candy and snacks accounted for a third of the food commercials, while 28 percent were for cereals — many of them loaded with added sugar — and 10 percent were for fast food.

Lest you think that these ads might not be having much effect, consider this: A 2006 Institute of Medicine report found that food ads and marketing strongly influence children’s food preferences and their diets.

Any parent who has shopped for groceries with children probably knows firsthand the strength of this marketing effort. Should there be any doubt, science also has documented that “the foods that are being advertised are the ones that children are going to be asking their parents to purchase,” says Mary Story, who studies food marketing to children at the University of Minnesota.

How often do parents give in to the pleas for junk food? About 50 percent of the time, according to Story’s research.

Fifty countries regulate food marketing to children, according to an editorial published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine by New York University’s Marion Nestle. Australia bans food advertisements aimed at children 14 and younger. In the Netherlands, food companies can’t advertise sweets to kids younger than 12. Sweden prohibits using cartoon characters to promote foods to children younger than 12.

The United States has far fewer regulations. But last year’s report from the Institute of Medicine recommended that Congress implement regulations “if the industry does not change its practices voluntarily.” The Ad Council and the National Advertising Review Council have new efforts designed to help control food marketing and to help promote healthier messages to younger TV viewers.

A 2005 survey commissioned by the Ad Council and aimed at parents of 6- to 12-year-olds illustrates how much work needs to be done. The poll found that 21 percent of parents say that they limit the amount of calories their children consume, while 37 percent said they knew what appropriate serving sizes should be for their children. About half the parents described their kids as physically fit.

But parents also reported struggling with their own healthy habits. Just about a third said that they eat healthy meals — about the same amount that reported being physically active.

Research clearly shows that children practice what their parents do, not what they preach. Adults who snack on fruit and vegetables or are physically active tend to have children who do the same, Story says.

That’s why David Ludwig, director of the Obesity Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston, advises families to keep a television log. Place a notebook and pencil next to the TV. Get each family member to agree to record when the set goes on and when it goes off. “The whole family needs to do this,” Ludwig says, “because just monitoring raises consciousness about how much television is being watched.”

Limit television to no more than two hours per day, he advises, noting that watching just “one hour daily is better, one half-hour is best.”

Not many calories are burned sitting on the couch watching TV. Research shows that metabolism actually declines during television viewing to levels as low as sleeping. Plus, the flurry of food commercials can help stoke hunger and encourage snacking. In a two-year study of 500 middle-school children, Ludwig found that kids consumed an additional 167 calories for every hour of television they watched.

Nearly all of these extra calories came from soft drinks, french fries, salty snacks, cookies, candy and fast foods. “Precisely,” Ludwig notes, “the foods that are most heavily advertised on television.”

So if you and your kids snack while watching TV, reach for fruit, carrot sticks, bean dip and salsa. And while you’re at it, try to get off the couch, at least during the commercials. Or consider putting exercise equipment in the family room with the television set.

Join Sally Squires online from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at www.leanplateclub.com, where you also can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club weekly e-mail newsletter.

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