Diet & Nutrition

Parents Often Don’t Check Nutrition Labels of “Health Halo” Foods

For the former study, “Food Consumption by Characters on Popular Children’s Television Shows: Are Children Aware of Character Food Choices,” the researchers analyzed 60 popular children’s TV shows for depictions of characters eating food, when and why. They then asked parents of 1,800 children ages 3 through 10 about their favorite TV characters’ food choices and why they seemed to be eating.

Of 92 percent of shows containing food choices among characters, 59 percent of those foods were classified as “junk foods” encompassing fast food, dessert, candy and chips. Most food choices occurred while characters were “snacking not during meal times in a social setting.”

“On television channels aimed at children, there’s been a lot of emphasis on decreasing violence, but I don’t know whether they’ve really thought about what foods are being eaten by characters and whether they can promote a healthier eating style,” Dr. Milanaik said. “Food should be something nutritious that you eat because your body is hungry. That’s how we want children to view food, not as something you eat because you’re bored or need something to do between meals.”

In the remaining study, “You Eat What You See: The Association between Foods on Popular Children’s TV and Increased Body Mass Index,” parents were asked to help their child recall a favorite TV character and the food he/she eats. BMI (body mass index) for each child was also calculated.

While 43.5 percent of normal-weight children and nearly 43 percent of underweight children listed characters that ate unhealthy food, this proportion was higher among overweight children (54.5 percent) and obese children (49.8 percent). A closer look showed that nearly 22 percent of normal-weight children listed characters who ate dessert or treats, but this percentage rose significantly among underweight (28.4 percent), overweight (30.3 percent) and obese children (28.2 percent).

Pediatricians should advise parents to limit children’s TV viewing and discourage them from imitating unhealthy eating habits depicted, Dr. Milanaik said.

“Physicians need to be able to take a few minutes and discuss with parents what’s in a healthy diet and what should be avoided,” she said. “It’s very difficult – pediatricians have a lot to cover in a short visit. But I do think they should have a talk with parents about what their kids are eating, even if a child is weight-appropriate, since those choices will likely follow them into adulthood.”