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Kids' Tube Time Increases Waist Lines
By Rallie McAllister

If your kids are spending their free time parked in front of the television set, they could be at risk for packing on a few extra pounds. Children who rack up more than five hours of television viewing a day are nearly five times more likely to be overweight than those who watch fewer than two hours a day, according to a recent Harvard study.

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that children's TV time be limited to two hours each day. Sadly, about 90 percent of American youngsters currently exceed this guideline. As a sedentary "activity," excess TV time undoubtedly contributes to weight gain. The problem is compounded when channel surfing is combined with snacking, a common practice among U.S. kids.

Children tend to eat too much while they're watching television, primarily because they pay more attention to what's on the tube than to what's in their stomachs. While they're tuned in to the television, they're tuning out their internal signals of hunger and satiety, and they may not notice when their stomachs tell them that they've had enough to eat.

No matter how bad some kids' television programs may seem; the commercial advertisements that accompany them are likely to be worse. While kids are enjoying a little entertainment via the airwaves, they're also being force-fed a steady stream of mind-melding messages. These messages can undermine good eating habits and ultimately lead to weight gain.

Using seductive marketing ploys, manufacturers of kid-targeted junk foods have a huge negative impact on kids' food preferences. They build the trap of obesity with sugary, fat-laden, and high calorie foods, and then lure kids into it using celebrity endorsements, toys, games, and contests as bait.

Food advertisements account for roughly half of televised commercials viewed by kids, and junk foods are among the most heavily advertised items during children's TV programs. Ninety percent of the foods advertised are high in fat, sugar, and calories.

On the other hand, only 2 percent of all advertisements paid for by food manufacturers sing the praises of fruits, vegetables, and grains; and it shows on our nation's kids. Most American children get about half of their daily caloric intake from fat and sugar that is added to foods. Only about 1 percent of all U.S. children consume diets that even remotely resemble the Food Guide Pyramid.

With American kids smack dab in the middle of an obesity epidemic, and with obesity now ranking as the second leading cause of death in the U.S., you might think that Uncle Same would wade into the food-advertising fiasco and take some action. The precedence has already been set with the ban of television ads for cigarettes, and the current restrictions that apply to televised beer commercials. But so far, it's a no go. Thankfully, Joe Cool and the Marlboro man are out, and Spudz McKenzie is on a very short leash; but Ronald McDonald is still hanging tough.

The Federal Trade Commission made a valiant effort to regulate advertisements aimed at kids in the 1970s, but the organization encountered a congressional roadblock that proved to be insurmountable. Since then, the number of kid-targeted food commercials has skyrocketed, and the rise in the number of overweight and obese children is following the same trend. Currently, more than a third of American children are overweight.

By the time the average American child reaches the age of 18, he or she will have viewed well over a million television commercials. A large percentage of these ads will have featured high-pressure, brain-scrubbing messages to eat junk food, and eat lots of it. For this reason alone, there's little wonder that the more television kids watch, the more fat, sugar, and calories their diets contain, and the more likely they are to be overweight.

It's tough for parents to compete with slick advertising tricks and celebrity endorsements, but it can be done. You don't have to rip the television cord from its socket to promote good health in your children. The simple act of turning off the TV has been proven to help kids eat less, become more active, and lose weight, even if you do or say nothing else at all. Several studies have found that when the television is off, kids naturally eat less and gravitate to more physically challenging activities. Getting kids off the couch and away from the TV can be tough for moms and dads, but it's an effort that's definitely worth making.

Rallie McAllister, MD, the author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim (LifeLine Press, September 2003), runs a family practice specializing in nutrition, wellness, and weight loss called Healthy Solutions, in Kingsport, Tennessee. Dr. McAllister is the creator and popular host of Rallie On Health, a health magazine TV show with over 1 million viewers in the five-state area of eastern Tennessee. Millions across the country also know her for her weekly nationally syndicated column called "Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister." Dr. McAllister lives with her husband and three children in Kingsport, Tennessee. Visit Rallie at www.rallieonhealth.com.

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