If you're concerned about your child developing unhealthy eating habits, becoming lethargic or gaining excess weight, it might be time to put them on a diet. A television diet, that is.
A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior conducted by UC Davis examined the commercials running on 12 networks during the weekday afternoon and Saturday morning hours, the times when children would be most likely to be watching. Out of 5,724 commercials recorded, 1,162 were food-related. And of those, 70% were advertisements for fast-food, junk food and soda; 34% were for places that sell or products that are considered ''food on the run.”
Which networks showed the most junk food commercials? Children’s networks ran 76% more food commercials per hour than the other networks. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 80% of the food ads appearing on Nickelodeon were for junk food. So if you’re wondering why your child has had a hankering for sugar-laden yogurt in a tube or soda that you never allow at home, it may have something to do with the shows your child is watching.
What can parents do to curb the amount of junk food messaging their child sees every day? Completely eliminating television may not be the answer for every family, but limiting television viewing can have a profoundly positive effect on your child’s health and well-being. Here are some TV diet tricks to try.
- Get a TiVo. TiVo technology allows you to record the show and then skip the commercials. This is beneficial not only because it eliminates the commercials, but also the overall sitting time (commercials account for about 8 minutes of every 30 minute time block).
- Play videos. If you don’t want a TiVo, you can still eliminate commercials from your child’s TV diet by playing a favorite video for their TV down time.
- Review your cable options. So you have access to 300 stations—do you need 300 stations? The more TV options you have, the more TV you may tend to watch, and the more stations your child has access to as well. A basic cable provides the bare essentials and usually includes your local Public Broadcasting Station, which offers exemplary educational programming for children sans the continual commercial interruptions. Your pocketbook will thank you too, as the basic cable is often as much as $50 less than its more popular mega-station counterpart.
- Create a weekly entertainment calendar. Think of television viewing as a form of entertainment, not a time filler or electronic babysitter. Together with your children, sit down and create an entertainment calendar for the week ahead. Tell them how much television time they have (either per day or for the week) and let the kids determine what shows they want to watch. Of course parents have veto power, but this enables the kids to watch what they really enjoy and empowers them with the choice. Once the television time has been scheduled, take a few moments to add other entertainment activities the family can do together to the calendar. If kids are showing resistance to the idea of limiting TV time, the calendar can emphasize that you are actually adding a variety of new ways to have fun throughout the week. Playing board games, riding bikes to the park, working on a huge jigsaw puzzle, having a scrapbook night are just a few ideas of TV-free entertainment that the whole family can enjoy together. Again, having the kids help plan these activities will increase their buy-in into the whole process.
- Create your own “Food Rules.” Michael Pollan’s newest book, Food Rules, offers streamlined and down to earth advice on how to eat right. Make your own food rules for your family, and then use those as talking points when those junk food commercials air.
- Take your kids grocery shopping. The challenge isn’t only to avoid the commercials, but to teach your children to eat well. So involve them in shopping for groceries for the family. Show kids the nutritional values on the side of the boxes of junk food and then ask them to find more healthful snack alternatives. If you have established “food rules” for your family, you kids may have fun being in charge of enforcing them when food shopping.
- Use the commercials as a discussion springboard. The upside of these commercials is they present a springboard to talk to kids about a variety of issues that affect them: the importance of staying healthy and being active, the influence of advertising, making sensible choices, enjoying things in moderation, etc. Limit the time kids watch TV and see commercials, but be sure to use the commercials as learning opportunities when they do air.
- Keep your TV viewing in check, too. Another study recently released in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, cited that adults who watch more than four hours of television a day had an 80% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease. In addition, they had a 46% higher risk of all causes of death compared to those who watch less than two hours a day.
Pare down TV time and find new and engaging ways for your family to spend their downtime. You may find this is the best diet you’ve ever tried.