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Cut Commercials, Not Carbs

The fries children see on TV may determine their weight as much as the ones they're eating.

Childhood obesity in the United States has reached startling proportions: An estimated 25 percent of children under 19 are overweight or obese. Although television viewing has often been cited as a contributing factor by virtue of it being a sedentary activity, a new study by researchers at the University of California-Davis suggests that the advertising children see may actually be a large contributor, too.

For the study, which appears in the November-December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, researchers examined the types of food advertisements seen by children watching English- and Spanish-language American television programs during high viewing times (weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings). They recorded programs on 12 networks, including popular children's cable channels, mainstream English-language channels, and popular Spanish-language channels.

Of the 5,724 commercials recorded, 1,162 were food-related — and as we've seen, young eyes are not the most discriminating when it comes to healthy chow. Overall, almost 1 in 5 commercials advertised a food- or nutrition-related product, and 5.2 food commercials were presented every hour. Of those, more than 70 percent advertised fast-food restaurants, sugary food, chips/crackers, or sugar-added beverages. Some 34 percent were for fast-food restaurants and convenience food.

Children's networks ran the highest percentage of food-related commercials, which were primarily for high-fat and high-sugar foods. When compared to television for a general audience, the children's networks in the study exposed young viewers to 76 percent more food commercials. These networks aired approximately 7.7 food-related commercials per hour — about one every eight minutes.

Eighty percent of MTV commercials advertised fast-food restaurants, sugar-added beverages, and sweets. Food advertising in Spanish-language American programming was primarily for fast-food restaurants and alcohol.

Only 1.7 percent of the commercials advertised fruits, vegetables, and juices, and only one nutrition-related public service announcement was present for every 63 food ads.

The authors of the study believe that reduced media use by itself is insufficient, noting the presence of food advertising in other media used by children, such as the Internet. They suggest that the incorporation of media literacy training into nutrition programs may help children and adolescents better understand advertising strategy and incentives.

But until your children become immune to the larger-than-life junk food flashing across your flat-screen TV every eight minutes, you may want to limit Saturday morning cartoons to DVDs.

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