U study: TV time predicts poor diet down the road

As researchers work to find out whatâÄôs behind the link between TV viewing and obesity, a recent University of Minnesota study adds another piece to the puzzle by showing a connection between TV watching and adolescentsâÄô and young adultsâÄô eating habits years later. Using data from Project EAT , a larger University study that examines adolescentsâÄô eating habits, kinesiology professor Daheia Barr-Anderson found heavy TV watching is associated with a poorer diet âÄî five years later. The study, published online Friday in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity , surveyed 2000 middle and high school studentsâÄô TV viewing time. Then, five years later, it surveyed the diets of those same two groups and found the heavy TV watchers had poorer diets than their peers who had watched less TV five years earlier. Heavy TV watching was defined as spending at least five hours daily watching television or videos. Poorer diet meant more junk food, like snacks, fried food and sugary drinks, and less healthy food, like vegetables and whole grains. University epidemiology professor Robert Jeffery , who specializes in obesity, said the studyâÄôs results didnâÄôt surprise him. WhatâÄôs unique about it, he said, is its long-term nature âÄî it looked at TV exposure at one time and diet at another, and found they were related. Though Jeffery said it further supports the connection between TV exposure and bad diet, the study did not establish that TV watching caused people to form bad diet habits. ItâÄôs possible another factor accounts for both TV and diet, or that people who watched more TV already had bad eating habits. However, Barr-Anderson said her work should help motivate further study to get at the mechanisms governing that relationship. To do that, Barr-Anderson said sheâÄôd look at which shows adolescents are watching, what commercials theyâÄôre seeing, how often they eat in front of the TV and parent involvement, like whether the family norm is to keep the TV on all the time or eat meals while watching it. Barr-Anderson said the likeliest causes of the association are that heavy TV watchers are influenced by advertisements for unhealthy foods, or simply that being in front of the TV leads to eating more junk food. She said she thinks food ads play a big role, and would like to see advertisers stop showing commercials for unhealthy food during TV programs aimed at kids and adolescents. Public health professor and study co-author Mary Story said efforts to limit food marketing are focused mainly on getting ads out of schools and regulating ads targeted at young children. Broad regulation of ads targeted at a general audience is unlikely, she said. Margo Wootan , director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which advocates for health-promoting policies, said this study will add to growing body evidence suggesting the link between TV and obesity is related to food rather than physical activity. As for potential ad regulation, Wootan said the CSPI is waiting to see if food advertisers can adequately self-regulate. As of January, she said, 15 major food and beverage companies have pledged either not to market to kids younger than 12 or advertise products that meet certain nutrition standards. However, each food company sets different nutrition standards, and there are still major companies that arenâÄôt on board with the effort, she said. If self regulation doesnâÄôt work, she said the CSPI will seek legislation to regulate ads. Though proving that junk food ads cause bad eating habits would require more research, Barr-Anderson said this study still comes with a message: âÄúParents, please limit your childrenâÄôs television watching and monitor what theyâÄôre eating,âÄù she said, because habits formed early on can have lasting health effects.