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Less TV = Healthier Kids

Healthnotes Newswire (June 1, 2006)—Across the United States, kids are getting fatter. It’s an epidemic whose causes are largely obvious: more junk food and less exercise, soft drinks peddled in the schools, and down-time spent glued to a cell phone, computer monitor, or television.

The average American child watches more than three hours of TV per day, not including videos and gaming. Two studies recently published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine show how TV is contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

“Children who were exposed to two or more hours of TV per day were significantly more likely to be overweight than children exposed to less than two hours of TV per day,” said Julie Lumeng, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and lead author on the first of the studies. More than 1,000 children from ten rural and urban areas of the United States participated.

“Preschoolers who are awake in a room with a television on for two or more hours per day are about three times more likely to be overweight at the age of three years,” she continued. “The effect of TV exposure on increasing overweight risk at age three years was present regardless of the mother’s education, family income, the quality of the home environment, or whether or not the television programming was educational in nature.”

Preschoolers exposed to more than two hours of TV per day also had more behavioral problems and depressive symptoms, and less stimulating home environments.

The problem only gets worse as kids grow older and take more control over their programming and food choices. In a second study, more TV viewing was directly linked with more calorie intake among sixth, seventh, and eighth graders.

“We found that increases in television viewing predicted increases in total calorie intake,” said Jean L. Wiecha, PhD, a senior research scientist in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at Harvard University. “The foods that are especially to blame appear to be the foods most commonly advertised on television: soft drinks, fried foods, and snacks.”

Five public schools in four communities near Boston participated in the study. Researchers looked at the calorie intake and TV viewing habits of 548 children, whose average age was 12. For each additional hour of TV kids watched per day, they consumed an additional 167 calories, and a higher proportion of foods commonly advertised on TV.

In 1997, the year researchers finished gathering data for this study, food manufacturers spent $7 billion on advertising. Of this, 25% of their advertising dollars went to promoting candy, cookies, salty snacks, and soft drinks—while only 5% was spent promoting fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, meat, poultry, and fish.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that total media time be limited to less than two hours per day in children ages two years and older. But limiting media to two hours per day does not prevent significant exposure to advertising for junk food that is directly marketed to youth.

Dr. Wiecha concurs, “Although children and youth are encouraged to watch what they eat, many of them seem to eat what they watch. And that’s a problem.”

(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2006;160:436–42) (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2006;160:417–22)

Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.

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