April 9th, 2006

TV Adds a Stone a Year to a Child's Weight

By Roya Nikkhah
Sunday Telegraph (UK)

Watching television for an hour can increase a child’s dietary intake by 167 calories and add more than a stone to their weight over a year, scientists have established.

The calorie calculation - up to nine per cent of a child’s recommended daily intake - marks the first time that an exact figure has been put on the impact of television on children’s diets.

Researchers also discovered that children were eating significantly larger quantities of the snacks, sweets and fast foods that they had seen advertised most frequently on television.

The new study has prompted calls from British health experts for “urgently needed” guidelines on the amount of television children should watch to prevent a further escalation of the country’s child obesity crisis.

One million two- to 15-year-olds in Britain are now either overweight or obese, and the condition has been linked with a sharp increase in children in the type of diabetes normally seen in middle-aged adults. Doctors say the current generation of British children will be the first since the Second World War to live shorter lives than their parents.

The new study examined the television viewing, eating habits and physical activity of more than 500 children aged 11 and 12 over 20 months.

Forty-three per cent of the sample group increased the amount of television they watched over the period of the study. At the start, scientists recorded how much food the children were eating and measured its calorie content.

They then compared it with the food and calories the children were consuming after 20 months, set against their individual increases in television viewing. Each additional hour of viewing meant, on average, that a child had consumed an extra 167 calories.

The research was carried out by a team from Harvard University and is published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Jean Wiecha, a senior research scientist and one of the authors of the report, When Children Eat What They Watch, said the findings confirmed the link between increased television viewing and rising levels of childhood obesity. She was particularly concerned by the correlation between weight gains and the sorts of food advertising to which children are increasingly subjected.

“The perception is that children watching television only gain weight because they are sitting and snacking in front of the screen and doing less physical activity,” she said.

“But when we compared the children’s daily calorie intake at the end of the study with what they were consuming at the start, the majority of the increase in calories was explained by them eating more of the snack foods they had seen advertised.”

A second study, at Michigan University, found that young children exposed to two or more hours of television a day were three times more likely to be overweight than children watching fewer than two hours.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two be limited to less than two hours of television a day but there is no official guidance in Britain. It has been estimated, however, that British children now spend as much as 53 hours a week - seven and a half hours a day - watching television, up from 38 hours a decade ago.

It is feared that this means weight problems linked with television could be even worse here than in America, where children watch an average of seven hours a day.

Last night, Paul Gateley, a professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University, called on the Government to recommend that children watch less than two hours of television a day.

“The lack of Government guidance on this is one of the biggest problems with the obesity issue,” he said.

Prof Mary Rudolf, a paediatrician for the East Leeds Primary Care Trust, who specialises in childhood nutrition and obesity, said that “strong guidance from policy makers is now absolutely essential”.

“These studies clearly show that television and its advertising play a large part in the childhood obesity epidemic. If we have a five-a-day fruit and vegetable guideline from the Department of Health we should have similar guidance on watching television.”

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