HOUSTON (February 24, 2009)

Here's another reason not to let kids park it in front of the TV for hours on end: a new study reports that high schoolers who watch too much TV are more likely to have bad eating habits 5 years down the road.

Researchers followed almost 2,000 high- and middle-school children and found that TV viewing, especially during high school, may have long-term effects on eating choices and contribute to poor eating habits in young adulthood.

The study found that high-school kids who watched more than 5 hours of TV a day ate less fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods and more snacks, fried foods, fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fats 5 years later.

This trend was stronger and more consistent during the transition from high school to young adulthood than during that from middle school to high school. Researchers note that both are critical developmental periods during which lifelong eating behaviors are established.

The authors also noted that while teens are key targets of ads for unhealthy foods and drinks, they might overlook the consequences of consuming them because the actors they see in the commercials are usually not overweight.

What This Means to You

Television, in moderation, can be a good thing. But as research has already shown, kids who consistently spend more than 4 hours per day watching TV are more likely to be overweight.

So, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.

To take control of TV in your house:

  • Limit the number of TV-watching hours.
  • Stock the room in which you have your TV with plenty of other non-screen entertainment (books, kids' magazines, toys, puzzles, board games, etc.) to encourage kids to do something other than watch the tube.
  • Keep TVs out of kids' bedrooms.
  • Turn off the TV during meals.
  • Don't allow kids to watch TV while doing homework.
  • Treat TV as a privilege that kids need to earn - not a right that they're entitled to. Tell them that TV viewing is allowed only after chores and homework are completed.
  • Try a weekday ban. Schoolwork, sports activities, and job responsibilities make it tough to find extra family time during the week. Record weekday shows or save TV time for weekends, and you'll have more family togetherness time to spend on meals, games, physical activity, and reading during the week.

It's equally important to encourage healthy eating habits. Kids, especially younger ones, will eat mostly what's available at home. That's why it's important to control the supply lines - the foods that you serve for meals and have on hand for snacks. It's also smart to involve kids in buying and preparing food, and to teach them how to read and understand food labels.

Set standards for health eating and moderate TV watching early, and your kids are likely to stick with those good habits as they get older and more independent.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2009

Source: "Does television viewing predict dietary intake five years later in high school students and young adults?" International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, Feb. 2009.