"In some cases, the effect is very small. On the other hand, these effects can be huge when you think of even a slight increase in food intake affecting 200,000 sixth graders," Iannotti said.
A positive note was that those who snacked the most while watching TV also ate more fruit (in addition to more candy, soda and fast food).
So, is TV at fault? The researchers acknowledged that other factors could play a role, such as parents who allow both TV watching and poor diets. The study authors didn't take household rules into account.
The authors said that future research should try to tease out the independent contributions of food advertising, TV time and TV snacking to food consumption among children. If it turns out that a cause-and-effect relationship does exist, attempts should be made to limit viewing or improve the nutritional content of foods advertised on TV, they said.
Frederick Zimmerman, chair of the health services department at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study is well-conducted, but "a little behind the current research curve" with regard to food advertising's effects on health and eating behavior.
"Other research has shown that physical activity tends to make us crave those inputs that are healthiest for us, whether in the realm of food or entertainment," Zimmerman said. "Regular daily physical activity -- especially outdoors -- is what we're designed for and the natural and enjoyable state of human beings. If we can enjoy regular physical activity, we can let go of some of the anxiety on TV and diet, because we'll naturally want what's healthy for us."
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