NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Kids and teens who watch a lot of television are less likely to consume enough fruits and vegetables and more likely to snack on candy or drink soda every day, according to a new survey of close to 13,000 U.S. students.
The link to poor eating habits remained even after accounting for exercise habits and how often kids snacked while in front of the TV.
Although the findings weren’t particularly surprising, this study alone can’t prove that watching too much television, itself, causes kids to make worse diet choices. Researchers couldn’t tell which came first — the extra TV, or poor eating habits — since they only looked at kids’ behavior at one point in time.
But the association between TV and diet in this cross-sectional study agrees with past research showing that when kids have their TV time cut back, they tend to eat less and may lose weight, researchers said.
“It certainly is consistent with the idea that TV is maybe adversely affecting dietary intake and food choices,” said Dr. Leah Lipsky, who worked on the new study at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, along with colleague Dr. Ronald Iannotti.
Previous studies have also suggested that youth who spend more time in front of the tube are more likely to be overweight or obese. One explanation is that ads for fast food and sweets during kids’ programming may be driving youngsters who see a lot of those commercials toward unhealthy foods.
“These studies suggest the food advertising has kind of an unconscious effect and just makes you want to eat more,” said Dr. Jennifer Harris, from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven.
Kids in the new study — a nationally-representative group of 12,642 private and public school students — watched an average of two and a half hours of television each day.
The researchers found that for every extra hour of daily television-watching reported by kids in fifth through tenth grades, the students were 5% less likely to eat vegetables every day and 8% less likely to get daily fruit.
Each extra average hour of TV also meant kids were 18% more likely to say they ate candy each day, 24% more likely to drink soda at least daily and 14% more likely to go to fast food restaurants once a week or more.
That was after taking into account survey participants’ age, gender, race and how well-off their families were.
Time spent snacking in front of the television explained some of TV-watchers’ extra candy and soda habits, but not all of it, Drs. Lipsky and Iannotti reported May 7th in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
“The effect of television is extending beyond just when they’re snacking and watching television,” Dr. Iannotti told Reuters Health.
That means it’s important both for parents to limit kids’ television time — and thus their exposure to food-related commercials — but also to make sure healthy snacks are available when they are watching TV or otherwise engaged in “screen time” in front of a computer, he said.
That could involve cutting up an apple or an orange and making sure candy and other unhealthy snacks aren’t sitting around.
Dr. Harris, who wasn’t involved in the new study, agreed. “If you can’t turn off the television, at least don’t give them (an unhealthy) snack while they’re watching,” she told Reuters Health.
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2012.