Study: Cut TV dinners to reduce childhood obesity

tv dinner

It can be tempting to offer up TV as a reward for good behaviour or a hassle-free mealtime – but it’s not doing our kids any favours, according to new research.

Children who get more than two hours of screen time a day or frequently eat dinner in front of the TV are more likely to be overweight or obese, says a VicHealth report. Almost a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese, and experts say parents need to make swift changes to curb the rapidly growing rate. It’s estimated one in three will be obese by 2025.

VicHealth chief executive Jerril Rechter says the Influencing Children’s Health report found fewer than one in three kids meets the guideline for daily screen time limits, and only one in five gets the recommended hour of physical activity each day.

“This report reveals that over-use of electronic devices such as televisions, computers and electronic gaming consoles are linked to negative health consequences for children,” Ms Rechter says.

The authors say parents should create stronger boundaries around the use of screens. Deakin University researcher Assoc Prof Anna Timperio says while many parents worry about how much time their children spend in front of the TV, their rules and strategies often don’t reflect those concerns.

“For example, parents might allow children to eat in front of the TV or use screen-time as a reward for good behaviour. These strategies are likely to be counter-productive if they are trying to reduce screen-time,” she says.

It’s vital parents set a good example for their children, the study says.

“So if child does something good don’t say, ‘Go sit in front of a television for half an hour’. Say, ‘Go outside in the backyard and play on your bike’,” Ms Rechter tells 774 ABC Melbourne. “Modelling really good habits is going to have an impact on those children, which will set them up for healthy habits for the rest of their lives.”

Inadequate fruit and vegetable intake is another key risk factor in childhood obesity, finds the study – and getting children involved in cooking is the key to getting them to eat their greens.

“Children whose parents eat breakfast, and girls whose parents report high levels of physical activity, are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables at least five times a day. Also, boys in particular are more likely to develop healthy eating habits if they get involved in planning and preparing meals and if the family eats meals together,” Ms Rechter says.

The report says childhood obesity can have lifelong health effects, including asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart conditions and some cancers. They are also more likely to be overweight as adults, placing them at further risk of chronic diseases as well as social problems such as discrimination and bullying.

VicHealth, a Victorian Government agency, shares these tips for a healthy, active childhood:

  • Keep TVs and other electronic entertainment devices in communal family areas rather than in children’s bedrooms.
  • Turn off the TV before family dinners and eat meals together daily.
  • Introduce rules regarding children’s screen time, for example not during meals, or TV-free times.
  • Involve children in providing family meals including meal planning, shopping and food 
preparation.
  • Use rewards other than unhealthy foods or screen-based entertainment to promote good 
behaviour.
  • Eat breakfast together as a family.
  • Encourage physical activity – keep sporting equipment near the back door rather than packed 
away in cupboards.
  • Model healthy lifestyle behaviours and support children’s physical activity; encourage children 
to choose a physical activity they enjoy.
  • Use active transport such as walking or riding whenever possible, for example short trips to buy milk, or 
walking or cycling to school.
  • Support children’s independent play and travel; encourage children to have unstructured 
physical activity and play alongside organised physical activity and sport.

Concerned about what kind of food your family is eating? Join in our live Facebook chat on family nutrition tonight to find out some tips or ask advice from a real nutritionist.

Michelle Rose

Michelle Rose

Michelle is a journalist and mum to two girls who are obsessed with dinosaurs, fairies, pirates and princesses in equal measure. She lives in Melbourne's east with her husband, daughters and a giant, untameable labradoodle. Michelle loves all things vegetarian, wine (it's a fruit) and online shopping.

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