MONDAY, Dec. 8, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- If you want your teenagers to eat more fruits and vegetables, try turning off the television.
That's the message from a new study that finds the more television teens watch, the lower their fruit and vegetable intake. The study appears in the December issue of Pediatrics.
"And as the television viewing increased over time, that was associated with further declines in fruit and vegetable consumption," says study author Renee Boynton-Jarrett, a researcher at Harvard Medical School.
Boynton-Jarrett and her colleagues evaluated 548 ethnically diverse students who were, on average, nearly 12 at the study's start and more than 13 at the end of the 19-month research project. They attended four public schools in Massachusetts.
Boynton-Jarrett's team evaluated how much TV the teens watched and their intake of fruits and vegetables (not counting French fries) over the course of the study.
At the start, "the mean amount of TV viewing was three hours a day," Boynton-Jarrett says, and students averaged 4.23 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, below the recommended five a day.
Over the course of the study, mean total fruit and vegetable servings decreased by 8 percent, she found.
The more TV viewing time increased, the more the consumption of fruits and vegetables declined. "If a child watched for three hours a day and then increased by one hour a day over the two-year period, he or she ate, on average, two fewer servings of fruits and vegetables a week compared to the child who did not watch TV at all," Boynton-Jarrett says.
What's the link? "It's our hypothesis that perhaps they either replace the fruits and vegetable with foods they saw advertised on TV," she says. "Or perhaps watching TV just lends itself more to the consumption of other foods that are easier to eat, that come in bags or are already prepared, like snacks."
The researchers did not see which foods on TV the teens had exposure to, but Boynton-Jarrett points out the advertising of fruits and vegetables is basically nonexistent on children's shows.
Another expert calls the new study interesting but not surprising.
"These data indicate that the influence of TV watching does affect eating behavior," says Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, a registered dietitian and executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, a national initiative working to combat childhood obesity.
"The issue is important to address because kids are already not getting enough fruits and vegetables and time spent watching TV is high in kids," Moag-Stahlberg says.
"Other studies show that TV watching is correlated with higher fat intakes. The bottom line is, we need to recognize that this medium does affect a child's eating behavior and unfortunately it is in the negative versus the positive way," she adds.
What to do? "Being aware is the first step," says Moag-Stahlberg. "I think most parents would not think that how much TV their child is watching could be influencing their nutritional habits."
Once parents are aware of the link between TV viewing and poor food choices, says Boynton-Jarrett, "they can hopefully help their kids make informed decisions that would encourage them to eat fruits and vegetables."
Parents might limit TV viewing, or ask their kids not to watch food commercials. Or, they could watch food commercials, with some parental input that the food advertised might not be the best snack choice.