Children and teens who watch a lot of television are less likely to get their fruits and vegetables and more likely to snack on candy or drink soda every day, according to a survey of close to 13,000 US students.
The link to poor eating habits remained even after the researchers, whose findings appeared in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, took into account how much exercise kids typically got as well as how often they snacked while in front of the television.
Though the findings weren't particularly surprising, researchers couldn't tell which came first, the extra TV or poor eating habits. Thus, the study alone can't prove that watching too much TV causes children to make poor diet choices.
But it does jibe with past research showing that when children have their TV time cut back, they tend to eat less and may lose weight, the researchers aid.
"It certainly is consistent with the idea that TV is maybe adversely affecting dietary intake and food choices," said Leah Lipsky, who worked on the new study at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver national Institute of Child Health and Human Development, along with colleague Ronald Iannotti.
Previous studies have also suggested that young people who spend more time in front of the television are more likely to be overweight or obese. One explanation is that advertisements promoting fast food and sweets during kids' programming may be driving youth towards unhealthy foods, experts have said.
The survey looked at a nationally-representative group of 12,642 private and public school students who watched an average of two and a half hours of TV each day.
The researchers found that for every extra hour of daily TV watching reported by children from roughly age 10 to 16, they were five per cent less likely to eat vegetables every day and eight per cent less likely to get daily fruit.
Each extra average hour of TV also meant kids were 18 per cent more likely to say they ate candy each day, 24 per cent more likely to drink soda at least daily and 14 per cent more likely to go to fast food restaurants once a week or more. That was after taking into account survey participants' age, gender, race and how well-off their families were.
"The effect of television is extending beyond just when they're snacking and watching television," Iannotti told Reuters health.
That means it's important both for parents to limit TV time - and thus exposure to food-related commercials - and to make sure healthy snacks are available when children are watching TV or otherwise engaged in "screen time" in front of a computer, he added.