CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the barrage of information about food that they consume while watching television, kids are getting the wrong message about healthy eating.
A study has found that the more television kids watch, the more confused they are about which foods are -- and which aren't -- going to help them grow up strong and healthy.
Increased television viewing had, in fact, a double-negative effect on the children in the study. Regardless of their initial nutritional knowledge, the more television they watched, the less able they also were "to provide sound nutritional reasons for their food choices," said the author of the study, Kristen Harrison, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Foods marketed as aiding weight-loss were particularly problematical for the kids in the study. They equated the words "diet" and "fat-free" with being nutritious.
"When they were presented with choices like Diet Coke vs. orange juice and fat-free ice cream vs. cottage cheese, they were more likely to pick the wrong answer -- the diet and fat-free foods -- than when they were presented with choices without these labels, for example, spinach vs. lettuce.
"The labels 'diet' and 'fat-free' suggest that these foods are good for them and make it harder for them to pick the 'right' answer," Harrison said, noting that the goal of the study was "to gauge children's understanding of which food would help them grow, not make them slimmer."
TV advertising intentionally blurs the lines between diet and nutritional -- in Harrison's words it "frames" diet foods by "equating weight-loss benefits with nutritional benefits." One TV ad for chocolate syrup, for example, runs the tagline, "as always, fat free."
"Child television viewers are bombarded with health claims in television advertising," Harrison said. "Given the plentitude of advertisements on television touting the health benefits of even the most nutritionally bankrupt of foods, child viewers are likely to become confused about which foods are in fact healthy."
Adults, Harrison said, should be able to understand the difference between foods that are healthy because they help one grow up, and foods that are healthy because they prevent one from growing out, "but this is too much to expect kids to understand."
Study findings appear in the most recent issue of the journal Health Communication. Harrison's research focuses on media effects on children and adolescents and the impact of media exposure on body image and eating disorders.
For the study, 134 children in the first through third grades were asked to respond to a questionnaire that measured their nutritional knowledge, nutritional reasoning and television viewing, once at the onset of the study and again six weeks later.
On average, the children reported that they watched 28 hours of television a week; there was no correlation between gender and age and the amount of television watched.
In the nutritional knowledge part of the study, children were presented with six pairs of foods and asked to choose which item in each pair was better for helping them "grow up strong and healthy." One food in each pair was predetermined to be more "nutritionally dense" than the other, Harrison said. The pairs were carrot/celery, rice cake/wheat bread, jelly/peanut butter, spinach/lettuce, fat-free ice cream/cottage cheese, and orange juice/Diet Coke.
The children displayed "moderate" nutritional knowledge, Harrison said. Out of a perfect score of 6, they got a median score of 3.7 the first time, and 3.92 the second. To test their nutritional reasoning, Harrison asked the children why they chose each food, and their answers were scored as representing either nutritional reasoning or non-nutritional reasoning.
Examples of nutritional reasoning were: "More juicy, has vitamins (referring to celery)" or "It has cheese, cheese is made from milk, and milk is good" (cottage cheese).
Examples of non-nutritional reasoning: "It's chewy" (wheat bread) and "My brother hates it" (spinach). The children also displayed moderate nutritional reasoning. "But as the study shows, this number decreases with heavier TV viewing, especially for the choices involving fat-free and diet labels."
One interesting finding was that children's nutritional reasoning was "largely independent of their nutritional knowledge."
For example, a second-grade boy who chose jelly over peanut butter explained that he chose jelly because "it has fruit in it and just a little sugar because sugar is bad." "Although his answer was incorrect, his reasoning was nutritional," Harrison said.
Conversely, a third-grade girl who chose cottage cheese over fat-free ice cream said she did so because "it has less calories."
"Although her answer was correct, her reasoning reflected the food's potential for weight loss rather than its utility for helping her grow up strong and healthy."
The reasoning that a food does not contain fat or has fewer calories may appear to be nutritional in nature, Harrison said, "but a lack of fat and calories will not in itself help a child grow up strong and healthy."
"We know that many American children are consuming too much fat and too many calories, but replacing the nutrient-dense foods in their diets with low-fat, low-calorie items like rice cakes and diet soda does them a disservice by depriving their bodies of the whole-food nutrients needed for growth."
The "ideal compromise," Harrison said, would be a diet of foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, with moderate levels of fat and calories. There is a "crucial difference between foods that don't contain 'bad-for-you' ingredients and foods that do contain 'good-for-you' ingredients."
Harrison said that whenever she presents this work, people invariably say that because childhood obesity is out of control in the country, a diet of rice cakes, lettuce, jelly and Diet coke wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.
"But I maintain that it would be a bad thing because these foods are nutritionally vacuous. Vodka is fat-free and has zero digestible carbs, so should we have kids drinking that every morning?
"They need nutrients to grow, and the 'right-answer' foods in the study have more of those nutrients than the 'wrong-answer' foods."
In her report, Harrison cited previous studies that have found that 97.5 percent of the food commercials appearing on weekend morning TV network programming were for unhealthy foods -- defined as products containing significant amounts of fat, sodium, cholesterol or sugar; for weekend evening programming, 78.3 percent of the commercials were for unhealthy foods.
Therefore, whether kids are watching children's programming or adults', they are exposed to ads for unhealthy foods.
"Thus, television in general seems to be a source of nutritional misinformation, and children's exposure to television in general may increase their risk of becoming misinformed food consumers," Harrison wrote.
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