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Try Turning Off the Television
You're all no doubt more than familiar with the two main strategies for weight loss: reducing the number of calories you eat and increasing the number of calories you burn. Obesity researchers are also looking at ways to decrease the amount of time people spend in sedentary behaviors (activities that don't significantly increase the number of calories you burn much above your baseline resting state).

Kids also eat more while watching TV
I wrote not long ago about how distractions such as music during a meal will contribute to adults eating more than they would without music on (News Bite, 11/07/06), and you've probably heard the estimates that children consume about 25% of their daily meals in front of the television. Recently, scientists at the University of Buffalo devised a pair of experiments to see if television viewing affected the amount children ate.

Children's Weight and "Media Time"
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued national guidelines recommending that parents limit media time (including television or computer use) for their children over two years of age to just 1 to 2 hours per day of quality programming. While previous studies link childhood obesity with television and video watching, few of those studies actually focus on the AAP's recommended cut-off times. Nor have those studies sought to link computer use with childhood obesity.


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How much television do your kids watch?

a hand holding a television remote pointed at the television

A recent study from the University of Missouri followed 8,000 children from kindergarten through third grade (J Am Diet Assoc 2007;107(1):53-61). The children were participants in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten Cohort, a sample of children from schools nationwide who entered kindergarten in 1989. About 48% were boys, 52% girls.

The participating children were weighed and their height measured on four occasions: Kindergarten fall and spring, first-grade spring, and third-grade spring. They were classified as overweight if their weight exceeded the 95th percentile for their height. Meanwhile, their parents were interviewed at the same periods, answering questions about their child's amount of television viewing, how often the family ate meals together, how much exercise the child got per week, and how the parents felt about their neighborhood's safety for outside play.

Children were then classified into one of three groups: those who were never overweight, those who became overweight by third-grade spring (but were not overweight before then), and those who were persistently overweight (becoming overweight at some point before third-grade spring). After correlating the three group's television, meal, and activity habits, the researchers confirmed what you probably already know: those children who watched more television during kindergarten and first grade, and who also ate fewer meals with their families, tended to be overweight by third grade. In fact, 17% of the children in this sample were overweight in third grade.

Interestingly, the amount of opportunities for exercise and the parents' perception of their neighborhood's safety had no effect on children's risk of overweight.

What this means for you

We know that childhood and adolescent overweight tends to mean overweight and obese adults. Current guidelines suggest no more than 2 hours of screen time (either television, videos, or video games) per night. Plus, kids who eat meals with their family tend to have healthier diets. Try one of these kid-friendly recipes today: Creamy Mac 'n' Cheese, Oven Fried Chicken, or Pepperoni Pizza.

First posted: February 9, 2007