April 9th, 2006

Proved: TV Leads to Junk Food Diet

By Camillo Francassini
The Times (of London)

Long seen as the cornerstones of childhood obesity, now a study has found that the amount of junk food youngsters eat is directly proportionate to the number of hours they spend watching television.

Research into the dietary and viewing habits of more than 162,000 children in 35 countries has revealed that their consumption of sweets and fizzy drinks rises with each hour they spend in front of the box. By contrast, the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables falls.

The findings, by researchers at the universities of Aberdeen and Ghent, in Belgium, have prompted renewed calls for curbs on TV viewing by children and junk food advertising.

“The association between watching TV and reduced likelihood of regularly consuming fruit and vegetables, found in many countries, could be . . . a result of the replacement of fruit and vegetables by other foods advertised more frequently,” the authors conclude.

While the study concedes that couch potato youngsters may eat more junk food while watching television, it also claims children are more likely to ask for, buy and eat food they see advertised on television.

The latest research, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, is based on detailed surveys of children aged between 11 and 15 carried out by the World Health Organisation.

In all but one country, Greenland, there was a significant association between television viewing and higher rates of daily consumption of sweets and fizzy drinks.

In terms of viewing, Scotland came joint sixth with England and the United States with an average of three hours a day. Ukraine was top with 3.7 hours, while children in Switzerland watched the least, an average of two hours a day.

Scots youngsters were 31% more likely to consume fizzy drinks and 26% more likely to eat sweets with each additional hour of television watched. They were 12% less likely to eat vegetables and 15% less likely to eat fresh fruit with each extra hour spent in front of the box.

In England, each additional hour of viewing made children 25% more likely to consume fizzy drinks and 20% more likely to eat sweets. The likelihood of eating vegetables or fresh fruit fell by 12% and 11%, respectively.

The study concludes: “Given the associations with eating habits presented here, this may well put them (young people) at greater risk of obesity and poorer nutritional status.

“Efforts to use advertising targeted at children and adolescents to promote healthy foods and to replace young people’s TV viewing time with alternative activities would offer a way forward in the short term.”

Ministers also want to introduce obesity tests for primary school children. It means five-year-olds would be weighed and measured to assess if they are clinically overweight. Those who fail the test could be referred to a dietician.

It follows proposals from Ofcom, the media regulator, to curb food advertising aimed at children including banning celebrities from taking part in food or drink commercials aimed at under-10s.

The proposals, unveiled last month, have been criticised by some campaigners for not going far enough. Consumer groups and the British Heart Foundation have called for a ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed.

Scots children are among the fattest in the world with one in five 12-year-olds classed as clinically obese, one in 10 as severely obese and one in three as overweight.

David Haslam, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “This study encapsulates the disordered lifestyle that so many children have these days. They sit in front of the telly with sweets, crisps and fizzy pop and it’s going to kill them.”

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