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Children’s TV promotes bad diets, says study

By Anne Bruce , 08-Jul-2014

Unhealthy foods are heavily promoted in kids TV programming, according to the new research.
Unhealthy foods are heavily promoted in kids TV programming, according to the new research.

Unhealthy foods are being promoted to children in everyday children’s television programmes, new research published in the British Medical Journal suggests.

Foods such as sweet snacks and candy accounted for almost half (47.5%) of all depictions of food on children’s television shows, and sugar sweetened drinks accounted for a quarter of all drinks, researchers found.

The research, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, looked at the frequency and type of food and drinks seen in children-specific television broadcasts over five days.

Researchers looked at programmes on the BBC in the UK and channel RTE in Ireland- both national channels which do not carry advertising.

Some 1155 scenarios involving food and drink were recorded over 82.5 hours of programming, making up 4.8% of the total broadcast material.

Unhealthy choices

The authors said that eating and drinking were common activities within children-specific programming with unhealthy foods and beverages especially common. These unhealthy choices were frequently associated with positive motivating factors, and seldom seen with negative outcomes.

More than 90% of characters seen in the programmes with the unhealthy foods and drinks were not overweight, despite the intake of unhealthy food and tendency to eat snacks rather than balanced meals.

Healthy foods included breads, grains, cereals, meats, dairy, fruit, vegetables, fish, sandwiches; unhealthy foods included fast food, convenience meals, pastries, savoury snacks, sweet snacks, bars, ice cream and candy. Drinks were coded and grouped as water, juices, tea/coffee, sugar-sweetened or unspecified.

Fourteen specific food types were depicted on television shows. The most common food types could not be accurately grouped into a distinct food group (16.6%), followed by sweet snacks (13.3%), sweets/candy (11.4%) and fruit (11.2%). The most common drinks were unspecified (35.0%), followed by teas/coffee (13.5%) and sugar-sweetened (13.0%).

Unhealthy foods account for 47.5% of foods shown, and sugar-sweetened beverages for 25% of drinks.

TV programmes aired in Ireland included more condiments, fewer fruit and unspecified drinks, with more verbal unhealthy “cues” broadcast than on UK programmes.

Cause and effect?

The report said that although there was a clear link between exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods and their consumption by young children, the effects of unhealthy food and drink content in television programmes aimed at children was not clear.

There are few studies examining the portrayal of food and beverages within children's television programming, and these have largely been based on prime-time viewing in the USA and not on children-specific programming, the authors noted.

In 2007 legislation was introduced in the UK to restrict the advertising of foods with high sugar, salt, and fat content during children’s programming.

In Ireland new broadcasting regulations prohibit the endorsement of unhealthy foods by celebrities, sports stars, television programme characters, and characters from cinema releases. 

Source: The British Medical Journal
Published 4 July 2014; 2014;349:g4416; doi:10.1136/archdischild-2013-305430.
“Food and beverage cues in UK and Irish children—television programming”
Authors: Paul Scully, Orlaith Reid, Alan Macken, Mark Healy, Jean Saunders, Des Leddin, Walter Cullen, Colum Dunne, Clodagh S O'Gorman

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