By H.J. Cummins
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Television at dinnertime may be an even worse idea than you think.
It's not just a conversation stopper. It doesn't even matter if you're tuned to sex, violence or the Muppets. Simply allowing that screen to glow across the supper table now has been linked to two health dangers: overweight youngsters and poor family nutrition.
The connections are part of a new turn in media concerns, moving from mental health to physical health.
Obesity among America's young is considered epidemic; the American Academy of Pediatrics and other doctors say that 20 percent of U.S. children are overweight, twice the rate of 20 years ago.
About 80 percent of overweight teens become overweight adults; obesity sets up a person for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis.
Doctors call obesity the No. 2 preventable cause of death in the United States, behind smoking.
"The health concerns are significant, with the real impact down the road," said David Walsh, president of the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. His research also shows that two-thirds of U.S. families have their TV set switched on while eating dinner, at least sometimes.
The new findings include:
l Families that had their television sets on during mealtimes ate more processed meats, salty foods and quick-preparation foods such as pizza, but fewer fruits and vegetables. Researchers in this study, done at Tufts University in Boston, say they believe it's the first hard research connecting TV viewing with unhealthy foods.
l Overweight youngsters ate 50 percent of their dinners at home watching TV, while normal-weight youngsters ate 35 percent. Researchers in a study at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston happened upon the difference when looking for other food influences on 300 fourth- through sixth-grade students.
The dinnertime dangers came as no surprise to one Minneapolis family, whose members, like the researchers, see the findings as one more connection between youngsters' consumption of media and food.
It's a rare occasion -- maybe a big game -- when Mike and Glenda Lehfeldt allow the TV to be on during dinner. In fact, the couple limit all TV time for their children, Haley, 7, and Michael, 12.
"A lot of commercials are for junk food," Glenda Lehfeldt said. "Just sitting and watching TV encourages snacking, I think. I'd rather have them outside."
The Lehfeldts find support in Michael's sixth-grade class, where students study television's effects.
"If you just sit around all day and eat food and stuff, you get heavy and it leads to obesity in your life," Michael said. "And after we started this, I'm more aware of what I'm eating. I'm cutting back on junk food " for lunch I eat more of my apple. I used to just go around it once but now I'm eating almost the whole thing."
What's to blame?
Researchers on the TV-dinner studies speculated about reasons for the health risks they found. It could be that people eat too fast to feel full. Or it could all be part of fast-paced homes that favor "no-fuss" family life, including packaged, quick-fix meals that tend to be higher in salt and fat.
Or, it could have something to do with the commercials that youngsters see while watching television -- specifically for soda pop, candy, salty snacks and packaged foods.
Some experts point to other recent studies to support their point.
U.S. youngsters have added the equivalent of half a snack a day since the late 1970s, and they're snacking less on fruit and milk and more on potato chips and soft drinks. This information comes from one of the biggest new youth-health studies, out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with analysis of 21,000 U.S. youngsters ages 2 to 18.
And some "flip-side" evidence: Youngsters who cut their television and video-game time by eight hours per week lost weight -- an effect that flowed from that change alone, because researchers at Stanford University in California didn't manipulate anything else in the youngsters' lives, including exercise or diet.
Among ad critics is the TV Turnoff Network in Washington, D.C., which counted 202 junk-food commercials in four hours of television one Saturday morning. Another is Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader-connected advocacy organization, also based in Washington, D.C.
"TV has turned the home from a values arena to a marketing arena," said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert. "Through the TV, kids are subjected to nonstop bombardment to eat Whoppers, Snickers bars, Happy Meals, you name it."
Ruskin particularly dislikes pitches to very young children, such as the Burger King and McDonald's tie-ins with Teletubby characters.
"It doesn't get any lower than luring 2-year-olds into high-fat junk food," he said.
One reason for that concern is that not all the problems with obesity wait until adulthood.
One reason that overweight youngsters fall away from physical activity is because they're embarrassed about how they look, said University of Minnesota nutritionist Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.
They're also at risk of venturing into unhealthy dieting, even eating disorders, said Neumark-Sztainer, "because kids will take drastic measures."
And the name-calling goes on.
"At a time when people have caught on to the fact you're not allowed to tease about certain things, like race and ethnicity, weight is still up there," Neumark-Sztainer said. "Kids still get teased about their weight."