Good food messages from us can fight TV's lure

January 20, 1998|By Lynn F. Little

Good food messages from us can fight TV's lure

Children in the United States spend more time watching television than they do any other activity except sleep.

According to Nielsen data, the most avid television watchers are 2- to 5-year-olds. They watch an average of 27 hours of television each week. Six- to 12-year-olds watch an average of 23.5 hours each week, and adolescents watch 22 hours per week.

What does this have to do with nutrition and health? Besides the health implications of spending 23 to 27 hours each week sitting in front of a television, as opposed to engaging in active play, there are three hours of food commercials children watch each week.

The goal of these food commercials is to persuade children to desire a particular food product. Many ads directed at kids are deceptive in their nature. For instance, breakfast cereals with "fruit" or "fruity" in their name are depicted in ads that include colorful images of real fruit. In reality, many of the products contain no fruit or juice, relying on artificial flavors and colors for their fruitiness.


Unfortunately, it appears that kids are taking these pitches to heart. With more than $1 billion a week in buying power (including the purchase they influence as well as ones they make themselves), the top food purchases of children include candy and gum, soft drinks, snacks and fast food.

Children are in desperate need of a balanced, sensible message about eating and nutrition. What should we be teaching our kids? If we are to instill healthy attitudes about food and body image in our children, we must start early, presenting a unified message about food as a friend and our bodies as something to be proud of and happy about.

What can we do?

What we can do to instill healthy attitudes in our children?

* Affirm children. When they complain about being too fat, skinny, short, tall or slow, emphasize the goodness about them. Assure them that people, kids, too, come in all different colors, shapes and sizes. There is no one best way to look.

* Emphasize the enjoyable aspects of food. Avoid labeling food as either medicine or poison. With older children especially, telling them it's good for you may be the kiss of death for a particular food. Likewise, kids are not immediately concerned that a food they like may clog their arteries or decay their teeth. Scare tactics rarely work.

* Children should have a choice over their eating and control over their bodies. Given a selection of healthful foods, kids have an amazing ability to regulate their diet. In spite of good intentions, adults often throw children's eating habits out of whack when they attempt to regulate food intake.

* Encourage children to move, play and exercise, both at home and at school. Kids will gravitate toward more activity if they are regularly "unplugged" from the television and video games. Parents also reap benefits from family walks, bike rides and other shared activities.

* Make family meals a priority. Breaking bread together promotes good nutrition habits. School-aged children who eat alone in front of the television tend to overeat, while younger children tend to eat fewer nutritious foods when isolated at meals.

* Mealtime means more than refueling kids with nutrients. They also get a hefty dose of emotional, intellectual and spiritual nourishment. As families pass the peas and pour the milk, they also convey values and establish traditions.

* Emphasize food as it relates to life today. You will lose kids' attention faster than they can say "osteoporosis" if too much emphasis is placed on how proper nutrition prevents disease.

* Remind children that healthful food promotes achievement. In school or on the playing field, kids who eat well perform better and achieve higher levels of mastery. A nutritious diet fuels the body for learning, growth, sports and play. Well-nourished kids look better, too. Children who eat a balanced diet have bright, sparkly eyes, healthy skin, hair and teeth, and bodies that look and feel great.

* Teach children to refuel their bodies. Because of their smaller stomach capacity and tremendous energy needs, kids require frequent meals and snacks. Behavior problems at times are merely the result of an empty stomach.

* Done right, snacks can and do make a big contribution to daily nutrition. Somehow snacking has taken on a negative connotation in our society, perhaps because it often is linked with junk food. Healthful snacks should mirror meals, emphasizing healthful foods, but in smaller quantities.

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