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Parent's TV Habits Linked to Kid's Junk Food Consumption

Update Date: Jun 06, 2013 01:16 PM EDT

If your kid thinks a Happy Meal is a healthy meal, you may want to reconsider how you watch television.

A new study conducted at the University of Michigan linked commercial TV viewing to greater junk food consumption compared to commercial-free digitally recorded TV or other media without food advertising.

Researchers wanted to see if there was a link between family characteristics and children's dietary intake and perception of healthy meals.

Researchers interviewed over 100 parents about a wide variety of home and family characteristics like child and parent media exposure and child dietary intake.  Researchers also conducted separate interviews with preschool children to get a sense of what children thought made up a healthy meal.

The study used food security as a marker because it determines how much people can spend on junk food. Food insecurity is associated with limited income, and therefore less money can be spent on junk food.  However, food-secure people can afford to give in to craving when watching food advertising. 

Researchers found that food-secure people were more likely to consume junk food, and that their children had distorted views on what makes up a healthy meal.

Previous studies have linked child TV viewing to obesity in childhood, but not during the preschool years. Past research also tended to combine commercial TV with digitally-recorded TV, according to researchers.

Researchers from the latest study wanted to address theses less-studied topics to understand what children are learning about eating before they begin to make their own food choices.

"Even though parents and other caregivers are the primary gatekeepers regarding young children's food intake, children are still learning about food as it relates to health from family, media, and other sources, and may use this knowledge later on to inform their decisions when parents or other adults aren't there to supervise them," lead researcher Kristen Harrison said in a news release.

"The preschool years are especially important, because the adiposity rebound in kids who grow up to be normal weight tends to be around age 5 or 6, whereas for kids to grow up to be obese, it happens closer to 3. We need to know as much as we can about the factors that encourage obesogenic eating during the preschool years, even if that eating doesn't manifest as obesity until the child is older," she added.

The findings will be presented at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association conference in London.

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