NEW FOOD MOVEMENT

Navigating the New Food Movement: DOH! Now we know who's to blame for fat kids

Is Bart to blame for childhood obesity?

Why you little! Researchers from University of Minnesota asked about 2,100 kids averaging 14 years old to name their three favorite TV shows. They then coded three episodes each of the 25 most popular shows, looking for food-related content, including perceived healthiness of the food, its portion size, whether the character ate at the dinner table or in front of the TV and other social contexts.

They found Bart, Stewie and crew are bad, bad influences in the food arena:

  • Nine out of 10 episodes contained some eating, with an average of 5.3 incidents per show. Of those, almost half were depictions of snacks.
  • Snacks were significantly more likely than meals to be “mostly unhealthy," with almost seven in 10 being bad for you, compared to only about one in five for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Healthfulness was based on food balance, along with the consumption of fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, cheese and yogurt.
  • For foods shown being eaten by a character, the coders noted whether the portion was considered excessive, based on whether food was heaping over the plate or the character helped himself to multiple servings. Only 10 percent of snacks were such heaping portions, which didn't significantly differ from the 8 percent of meals.
  • Snacking was signicantly more likely to be done in a couch-potato setting, with 25 percent of snacks eaten in front of the tube, compared to only 4 percent for meals.
  • Kids, poor and overweight characters were significantly more likely to eat snacks in the shows. (A character’s weight status was coded as overweight if the character had excess body fat, such as an obvious pot belly.)
  • Sitcoms and shows rated for a youth audience were significantly more likely to portray snacking than shows aimed at an adult audience.

"Although snacking behaviors on television shows may seem innocuous," the Minnesota team granted, they cite "extensive research" claiming on-screen behaviors create behaviorial social norms that continual viewers can come to see as typical or expected.

Does this cartoon make me look fat?According to a 2015 report, adolescents now spend an average of 17 hours per week watching television. Research on smoking, early sexual activity and violence has identified links between viewing entertainment media content and enacting these behaviors. Given enough TV viewing, the Minnesota researchers argue, youth can come to eventually form “pseudofriendships” with television characters and look to them as role models. The strength of their influence may depend how similarly they identify with the character in terms of sex, race or attributes like body type, which makes the unhealthy eating by significantly more of those types of characters in their content analysis particularly important.

They suggest their research points out the fact that the lion's share of media research linked to the obesity epidemic that focuses only on food advertising may be missing the more important programming cues in between the commercials.

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