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Television Confuses Children About Diet Nutrition

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Child Nutrition Study

When it comes to understanding food nutrition, and the difference between nutritional benefits and weight-loss benefits, children are being misled by confusing messages on TV. In fact, regardless of their knowledge of dietary nutrition, the more TV the children watched, the less able they were to offer sensible reasons for their individual food choices. That's according to a new survey conducted by Kristen Harrison, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois.

"Diet" and "Fat-Free" Food Descriptions

Buzz-words like "diet" and "fat-free" were especially misleading for children. They tended to regard diet-soda and foods described as fat-free, as being healthier than foods without these labels. This confusion between weight-loss and health attributes was more pronounced among children who watched more television. TV advertisements promoting food products for their low-calorie, low-fat, or low-carb weight reduction benefits are a major contributory factor, according to researchers. A food perceived as good for weight is often seen as being nutritional as well.

Survey Into Children's View of Healthy Food

Participants in the study included 134 children (first-thru-third grades). They were given a questionnaire to measure (1) their knowledge of dietary nutrition; (2) their nutritional reasoning; and (3) their TV viewing.

Which Food Contains More Nutrition?

During the nutritional knowledge section, children were presented with six pairs of foods: jelly/peanut butter, spinach/lettuce, carrot/celery, rice cake/wheat bread, orange juice/Diet Coke, and fat-free ice cream/cottage cheese. (Each pair contains one food that is nutritionally dense.) The children were then asked to choose which food in each pair was better for helping them "grow up strong and healthy." On average, the children scored 3.7 out of 6. Six weeks later, when requestioned they scored 3.92.

Why Did You Choose That Particular Food?

During the nutritional reasoning section, the children were asked WHY they thought their chosen food in each pair was more nutritious than the other. Answers were classified as being nutritionally-based (eg. the food contains more vitamins), or non-nutritionally-based (eg. I don't like the color). On average, irrespective of their initial knowledge of diet nutrition, the children posted moderate scores. But children who watched more television fared less well. According to researchers, this lack of nutritional understanding is the result of watching too many TV ads that loudly proclaim weight-loss and health benefits for doubtful foods. Note: the children's average TV viewing time was 28 hours per week.

Child Nutrition Study - Summary

Children tend to confuse non-nutritious foods that are good for weight-reduction with foods that are helpful for general health and growth. For example, they seem to equate a food that is "fat-free" with a healthy way of eating. This confusion is aggravated by TV messages. Research for the child nutrition study highlighted the fact that 97.5 percent of food commercials appearing on weekend morning TV network programming were for unhealthy foods - meaning foods that contain significant amounts of fat, sodium, cholesterol or sugar; for weekend evening programming, 78.3 percent of the commercials were for unhealthy
foods.

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