What should we feed kids who like to snack in front of the TV?

Many parents recognise that one time in the waking day that offers some respite from the demands of child-rearing is when their kids are sat in front of the TV. The television has considerable powers in terms of grabbing and holding a child’s attention, and can even exert an almost-magical calming influence on small children in particular. However, the trance-like state induced by TV-viewing also gives food companies the ideal opportunity to ply children with their wares. Adverts for soft drinks, confectionery, sugar-charged breakfast cereals and fast foods that come through the screen clearly do little to foster healthy eating habits in young impressionables. I was therefore very pleased to read that a UK-wide campaign has got underway to restrict the marketing of food directly to children and give them a welcome commercial break.

However, while television watching can subject children to barrage of mesmerising advertisements for none-too-healthy foods, this is not this is not the only hazard associated with this activity. TV time is often also a prime time for kids to indulge in some snacking on unwholesome stuff such as sweets, biscuits or couch potato crisps. There is even some evidence that television viewing increases the likelihood of a child eating in the absence of hunger. The overriding of internal cues for the need for food can lead children to exceed their calorific requirements for the day. While I am a fan of snacking, I do think it is something that should generally be reserved for times when there is genuine need for fuel. It also helps if some or all of the typical fare had by kids in front of the TV is replaced with healthier items such as fresh or dried fruit, nuts, and cut-up carrot, cucumber or celery.

Another unwelcome side-effect of TV viewing concerns this pastime’s ability to detract from other more health-giving activities. Generally, the more time children engage in the spectator sport that is television watching, the less time they spend engaged in actual sport. The selling off of school playing fields and an increasing emphasis on academic testing mean that there is an increasing onus on parents to ensure that their children get enough healthy exercise. While organised sport may provide an outlet in this respect, recent evidence shows that less formalised activities can bring considerable benefits. Family-oriented pursuits such as walking, cycling and swimming provide ideal opportunities for the burning up of energy, even in children who may not have a particularly sporty bent.

Bearing in mind its likely effects on children’s eating and exercise habits, it is perhaps little surprise that some doctors and scientists are seeing television watching as a quite potent force in the ballooning rates of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. In one study, risk of obesity swelled by 12 per cent for every hour a child spent in front of the TV each day. Another study found that in children aged 7 ” 11, those watching 3 ” 5 hours of television a day were 50 per cent more likely to be obese compared to children watching 2 or less hours of television each day. While TV watching is often said to induce the development of square eyes, there is good evidence that it increases the risk of children ending up with rounded bodies too.

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