Children are being bombarded with scenes of unhealthy eating on TV / Getty Images

Unhealthy foods accounted for nearly half of the food shown, with sweet snacks the most commonly shown item

Children are being bombarded with scenes of unhealthy eating on TV, in programmes which “unrealistically” portray slim, healthy characters consuming high levels of fatty, sugary and salty foods, health experts have warned.

While laws were passed in 2007 to curb the advertising of foods high in fat and sugar to under-16s, no such restrictions are in place for portrayals of food in the programmes children watch.

However, a new study has revealed what one expert called “very poor” representation of food and diet in TV shows aimed at children.

Unhealthy foods accounted for nearly half of the food shown, with sweet snacks the most commonly shown item. Sugary drinks represented a quarter of all the drinks displayed on screen.

Researchers analysed more than 82 hours of children’s television broadcast between 6am and 11am between July and October 2010, on the BBC and on Ireland’s public service broadcaster RTÉ.

The study, which is published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood today, is the first to analyse in detail the levels of exposure to unhealthy eating habits on TV.

While the study did not name any particularly shows, Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, from University Hospital Limerick’s department of paediatrics, who took part in the study, said that the majority of children’s programming from the USA, Britain and Europe presented a unhealthy representation of eating and diet.

Programmes aimed at teenagers was particularly poor, she said.

“The impression [given by the shows] was: ‘It’s a regular day, school’s out, let’s go and have fast food’,” she said. “The programmes were not showing the effects of eating all of these high fat and high sugar foods that we would expect children to show in real life. That’s unrealistic.

“Many shows were largely based at coffee shops or meeting places for kids where they all eat fast food and have high calorie drinks. And yet they are all happy, they are all thin, certainly not reflective of the overweight and obesity seen in kids today.”

The crisis in childhood eating habits and its effect on obesity levels has come into sharp focus in recent weeks, with health officials in the UK announcing new draft dietary guidelines which would halve daily recommended sugar intakes. The measures were largely aimed at curbing the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks among children and teenagers.

Health experts are increasingly concerned that high levels of overweight and obesity among the young could exact a heavy toll on society as the current generation grows up with an elevated risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. In England, one third of children in year six are overweight or obese, with similarly high levels in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Professor O’Gorman said that, while it was too soon to consider new laws to regulate the portrayal of eating on TV, public service broadcasters had a responsibility to consider the impact of their programmes of children’s health.

“Public space broadcasters whose mission is to protect, inform and empower the public could be making choices of one programme that represents a healthy lifestyle over another programme that does not,” she said. “Society has a role to play in this and parents have a role to play. But if the BBC and the RTÉ, had parameters for choosing good health food shows over poor health food shows, I think the programmers and broadcasters who make these shows would ultimately start to improve the way the portray food.”

There is, as of yet, no established link between the unhealthy eating that children see in TV programmes, and their own eating habits, but Professor O’Gorman said this was an area that now warranted research.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We broadcast lots of programmes to promote healthy eating to children and to help them understand where food comes from, with series like I Can Cook, Incredible Edibles and Blue Peter.”