Children Get Fat Watching TV

By: Cynthia Lair

One out of four children in the U. S. between the age of 5 and 18 is obese. Overweight is defined as weighing 110% of the desirable weight for your height. Obesity is defined as a condition that is marked by an excessive amount of body fat. For males this means someone whose body fat comprises 20% of their weight as compared to normal values of 15% to 18%. For females, obesity is marked by a body weight of 28% to 30% fat, compared to normal values of 18% to 24%. Obesity is also described as weighing 120% or more of the desired weight for height. Why are so many of our children so fat?

Most studies blame obesity in children on our sedentary lifestyle. There has been a huge increase in the amount of time children spend watching television, playing video games and using computers. Concurrently there is a decrease in the amount of time children spend running, jumping, climbing, walking and playing outdoors. Forty percent of boys aged 6-12 can't touch their toes. Studies show that there is a strong association between the number of hours of television watched and the degree of obesity. Those who watch more that five hours of TV a day can fall into the category of "extremely obese." According to William H Dietz, pediatrician and prominent obesity expert at Tufts University, "The easiest way to reduce inactivity is to turn off the TV set. Almost anything else uses more energy than watching TV."

But what about the effect of what children watch during the 3-5 hours a day they spend in front of the tube? Most programming has only one purpose - to hold our attention until the next ad. Consumers International in the UK conducted an International Comparative Survey of TV Food Advertising Aimed at Children. The UK, US and Australia have the highest levels of TV advertising directed at children. The survey uncovered that over half of all food advertising on UK television was for sugary breakfast cereals and fast food restaurants. Over 95% of the commercials for food were for products high in fat, sugar and salt. Never mind that the products also contain refined grains, artificial coloring and flavoring and a vast array of chemicals and preservatives. Most foods advertised on TV are nothing but lifeless, processed, empty calories. Children are bombarded with TV ads telling them that bad food is good.

Children are seduced into wanting these foods by savvy advertising schemes. They believe the message behind the ads. They are led to believe that eating the food in the ad will make you stronger, smarter or have more fun. Half of Australian 9 and 10 year olds believe that Ronald Mc Donald knows what is good for children to eat.

In many households both parents are working. Often children are in school, day care and after school care for 10 of their 14 waking hours. When parents pick up kids after a long work day, the last thing the want to do during their short amount of time together is deny them their favorite food. Swing by Burger King. The kids' get what they saw on TV, the parents don't have to deal with the chore of cooking and everyone's happy. But are they?

Children who are overweight are more prone to medical diseases, low self-esteem, depression and rejection by their peers. Big trade-off for a Big Mac habit. One-third of our children under the age of 18 suffer from one or more chronic health conditions including asthma and diabetes. This is a stunning reflection of what our current lifestyle is doing to our children.

How to prevent these problems. Simple actions that are difficult to put into practice:

  1. Limit the amount of time your child watches TV. Two to three hours per week is ample for an elementary-aged child. After a few days of whining, their dusty imagination kicks in and you will be surprised by what a bored child can think up to do.
  2. Parents need to make sure that their children get three wholesome meals a day. Parents are in charge of what food is offered to their child at home. Offer meals that include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, fish and a limited amount of dairy products. Sugar is not a meal. Juice is not a meal. If you don't want junk food to be a subject of contention, don't buy it. If you do buy it, set limits - only so much, only so often.
  3. Talk to your children about food advertising on TV. Ask them what ads they remember. Find out if they can identify the message behind the ad. Do they believe that going to a fast-food restaurant is a guaranteed good time? What about the ad makes them want to eat that food? go to that place?
  4. Talk to your children about good nutrition. Show them the USDA Food Pyramid. Teach them how to read labels. Take them shopping. Let them help you plan one or more meals per week. Grow a garden. Let them see what real food looks like growing.

Ultimately is up to us to decide what goes into our children's mouths, eyes, ears and minds. Children need strong boundaries. Take charge. Protect your child's health. Turn off the tube.

Originally published by Well Being Journal, May/June 1998, P.O. Box 1542, North Bend, WA 98045-1542, 1-425-888-9393

Cynthia Lair is the author of Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children and Their Parents

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