TV Ads for Junk Food: A Link to Kids' Obesity?

Junk-food advertisers may be playing a direct role in the growing obesity problem among U.S. children by scheduling commercials during kids' peak TV-viewing time, a new study suggests.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to maintain the moderation necessary to preserve their children's health," writes researcher Kristen Harrison and colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Based on a 1991-2002 National Health and Nutritional study, an estimated 16 percent of children aged 6-19 are overweight. This represents a 45 percent increase over data obtained during 1988-1994.

Almost one in seven white children and one in four black and Hispanic children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to the researchers.

The problem of childhood obesity has been linked to the spread of modernization, one significant component of which is television, they add.

The study appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

Watchdog Group: Reduce Junk Food Ads for Kids

Heavy Viewing of TV Ads

The average child views more than 40,000 commercials per year, mostly for toys, cereals, candies, and fast foods, the researchers write.

Although parents typically decide what will go on the dining room table, foods that are purchased are influenced by their children's requests; TV viewing may affect those choices.

The researchers set out to explore foods advertised to children during TV programs heavily viewed by children. They taped 40 hours of airtime over a five-week period in the spring of 2003. The programs selected were rated as the most popular nationwide among children 6-11 years old.

They surveyed 1,424 ads. Of those, 426, or 29.9 percent, were for food products.

The researchers show that nutrient-poor, high-sugar foods were prevalent, dominating food advertised during the TV programs children aged 6 to 11 watch most.

Candy, sweets, soft drinks, and convenience/fast foods were advertised most frequently, followed distantly by breads and cereals, write the researchers. Most advertising featured no health- related messages.

Convenience/fast foods and sweets compromised 83 percent of advertised foods.

Snack-time eating was advertised more than breakfast, lunch, or dinner combined, they write.

Kids Choose Junk Food in School

Help Kids Make Good Choices

Despite the heavy marketing of such foods, Harrison says parental involvement is still the most important factor in determining the daily diet of kids.

"Parents can work to maintain the integrity of the family pantry not only through selective shopping, but also through efforts to instruct their children about food and nutrition," she says.

Reducing the time spent in front of the television may also go a long way in slimming waistlines — of kids and their parents. "Parents could curb eating in their household by limiting their children— and their own - television viewing," notes Harrison.

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By Patti Connor, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Harrison, K. American Journal of Public Health, September 2005; vol 95. News release.