TV Diners Miss the Big Health Picture

Watching while eating negates potential nutritional benefits, study finds

MONDAY, April 9, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- By all means, eat dinner with your family. Just don't watch the tube at the same time.

That's the take-home message of a new study that found that, in low-income families with preschool children, the positive effect of eating dinner as a family tends to be negated by watching television at the same time.

"When you have the television on, people are essentially eating alone," said Arlene Spark, associate professor of nutrition at Hunter College in New York City. "Eating meals together and having family interactions has been associated with better food at meals. We would like to say turn the television off and speak to one another, but I don't know if that means carrots are going to fly onto the plate. But it's a good practice to be able to interact with children and family."

Bonnie Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition consultant in New York City, added: "You really need to be selective about the TV and, in this day and age, it's so rare that families even get together to have a meal that that needs to be precious time."

Neither Spark nor Taub-Dix was involved with the study, which appears in the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The findings essentially corroborate previous research that has found, among other things, that preschoolers who spend more time glued to the television have worse diets and that families dining together tend to have better eating habits.

"Lots of studies have found that when families eat together and presumably talk, kids eat healthier and do better, they're less likely to drink and use drugs. It's pro-social behavior," said Dr. Barbara A. Dennison, senior author of the study and director of the Bureau of Health Risk Reduction, Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Adult Health at the New York State Department of Health.

And when diners are focusing on the TV set, they're not paying attention to what they eat. "It's not just having interactions but also not appreciating the food that you're eating simultaneously," Taub-Dix said. "In terms of the childhood obesity epidemic in this country, part of what contributes is not just how TV takes away from physical activity, but it's distracting, and you don't know how much you're eating. It's a double whammy."

For this study, more than 1,300 parents or guardians of children participating in New York's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children were surveyed on how many days a week the family ate dinner together, the number of days each week the TV was turned on during dinner, and how often fruits and vegetables were served.

More fruits and vegetables were served on the nights families ate dinner as a unit. Servings of fruits and vegetables decreased each night the TV was turned on during the meal. Neither eating together nor having the television on seemed to have any relationship with servings of milk.

Fruits and vegetables are important components of any healthful diet and have been associated with decreased cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

The study also found that:

  • Hispanic and black parents reported having the television on during dinner more often than white parents.
  • Hispanic and white families tended to eat together more often than black families.
  • The television was turned on more often in families in which the parent had less than a high school education.

"There are lots of reasons for families to try to eat together," Dennison said. "I don't think people should have TVs in rooms that you eat in. There are things to do to change the home environment so it's not easy to have the TV on while eating dinner."

More information

Visit the Center for Screen-Time Awareness for more on TV-Turnoff Week, which is April 23-29.

SOURCES: Barbara A. Dennison, M.D., director, Bureau of Health Risk Reduction, Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Adult Health, New York State Department of Health, Albany; Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., national spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, and nutrition consultant, New York City; Arlene Spark, Ed.D., R.D., associate professor of nutrition, Hunter College, New York City; April 2007, Journal of the American Dietetic Association
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