Food for Thought -- Eating and Television
October 10, 2006
Thankfully the TV
dinner is disappearing -- at least in the area of the world where I live. I have
mixed memories about sitting with the little tin foil tray balanced on my knee
while watching The Beverly Hillbillies. I say mixed because it was fun
being entertained during dinner, however the food left something to be desired.
Cardboard beef and sawdust potatoes were barely palatable. Good thing there was
a little mound of chocolate whatever in the upper center of the tray.
Those "TV Dinners"
were a marketing response to a fast growing American behavior -- eating food
while watching television. And while we may not be eating from those
compartmentalized containers anymore, there is no denying that food and
television have become a tightly knit combination. Just check under the cushions
of that comfy sofa in front of your screen, and you'll find a sampling of last
week's snack menu.
While studies about
this entertainment/food combo have been done over the years, recently two
researchers revisited this decades-old tradition and found some surprising
results when they specifically looked at the behaviors of children.
Lori Francis and
Leann Birch are researchers at Penn State University. In Spring 2006, they
released the results of their study that examines whether eating while watching
television does harm to children.
They went into
their research with some known results of earlier studies that have shown adults
who eat while watching TV are more likely to be obese and children who simply
have high TV diets are also more likely to have higher body weights.
Francis and Birch
selected 24 children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. The kids had well
educated mothers in their mid-30s and the families had incomes of over $50,000.
The kids in the study viewed an average of an hour and a half of TV per day,
according to their mothers.
The pair of
researchers watched these little ones for six weeks. Half of the observations
were done while the kids watched TV, the other half of the time they observed
the children doing other things. In both situations, they provided the kids with
snacks or lunch. When they did watch television, they viewed a cartoon that had
nothing to do with food.
watching TV don't always eat more food. When provided with a nutritious lunch,
the kids who viewed the average hour-and-a-half or less, ate only about half of
what they did when they were provided a meal without the distraction of the
television. When it came to snack food, they ate only slightly less with the TV
on -- yet even with the more appealing munchies, they still chose to cut back on
food intake while viewing television.
But the concerning
observation was within the group who viewed more than the average of 1.5
hours per day. These children exhibited very different eating habits, and
consistently ate more food while watching television than they did when the
entertainment machine was turned off.
explanation, according to the researchers, appears to be that television
interferes with our body's ability to tell us when we are full, or at least we
become less sensitive to the signal that says, "I've had enough food!" Extending
this conclusion further, Francis wonders if their research may have uncovered a
new relationship between being a TV addict and childhood obesity. She questions,
"Is it because of the lack of physical activity or because of their intake?"
Parents of kids who
are heavy TV viewers may want to take some steps to make sure their kid's TV
habits aren't doing double damage. Provide allotted portions of the most
nutritious snacks. I've found if I put out pre-peeled carrots for my kids, they
will eat them just as fast as potato chips, and it still satisfies their need to
be munching while viewing.
Of course the best
solution, which is reaffirmed in this study, is to put your family on a TV diet,
and bring their viewing time under the hour and a half per day level. That's
still plenty of time for your children to get their allotted "TV dinner" fix for
Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
Television Council -
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