Eat Your Spinach, Kids!
When Popeye the Sailor Man started entertaining in the 1930s, almost every child in America knew that spinach—Popeye's fuel of choice—would help them grow up to be big and strong. Kids associated the green, leafy vegetable with nutritional value, whether they recognized it consciously or not.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where television has become the source of much of what America's children know about nutrition. A recent study by LAS speech communication assistant professor Kristen Harrison reveals that the more television kids watch, the more confused they are about which foods will help them to grow up strong and healthy. Also, the more television they consumed—regardless of their prior nutritional reasoning—the less able they were to provide sound nutritional reasons for their food choices.
The goal of the study was to gauge children's understanding of what foods would help them grow and become healthy, not those that would keep them slim and trim. TV food marketing, Harrison says, has shifted from touting foods that contain nutrient-rich ingredients, to boasting that a particular food is good because of the ingredients it doesn't have—fats or carbohydrates, for example.
"I would really like parents and policymakers to pay attention to the issue of children's nutrition and children's understanding of nutrition," Harrison says. "We've been so concerned about the issue of childhood obesity. We tend to think that a skinny kid is a healthy kid. A skinny kid could be a malnourished kid. It's possible to go too far in both directions."
For the study, 134 first- through third-graders responded to a questionnaire that measured their nutritional knowledge, nutritional reasoning, and television viewing habits. On average, the children watched 28 hours of television per week.
The children were presented with six pairs of foods and asked to choose which item in each pair was better for helping them "grow up strong and healthy." The pairs were
carrot and celery, rice cake and wheat bread, jelly and peanut butter, spinach and lettuce, fat-free ice cream and cottage cheese, and orange juice and Diet Coke. The correct food was the one that was most nutrient-dense, Harrison says.
"The heavier TV watchers were less likely to choose the right answer when the words ‘fat free' or ‘diet' appeared," she says. "For instance, the heavier viewers were more likely to think Diet Coke was healthier than orange juice and that fat-free ice cream was healthier than cottage cheese."
To test their nutritional reasoning, the children were asked to explain why they chose each food. If an answer contained even the slightest amount of nutritional understanding—for example, if a child picked rice cakes because his mom said rice was good for him—that was considered sound nutritional reasoning. But answers such as, "my sister hates it," were not. As in the knowledge category, Harrison discovered that the more TV exposure a child had, the more the child was likely not to provide "sound nutritional reasoning."
Harrison says parents can mitigate the messages their children receive from television.
"We know as media scholars that the effects of television will be reduced to the extent that kids have competing information," she says. "Parents do have a fair amount of power. I think what would help is if parents made it clear to kids that kids have different nutritional needs than adults."