The report from Tufts University in Boston was based on a look at the eating habits of 91 families in neighborhoods adjacent to Washington, D.C., most of them in Maryland.
Katharine Coon, lead author of the study, said that a number of factors might be at work linking eating habits to watching television, but she believed TV itself, and the kinds of food advertised heavily on it, might be a powerful influence.
Her study was released by the American Academy of Pediatrics on its Web site.
Coon said in an interview she had developed three "well-educated hypotheses" on what may be happening.
"The first is that high television viewing goes along with a cluster of family food behaviors where people tend to be unfocused. They want easy routines, no muss, no fuss," she said. "When a family is in that kind of mode there is a tendency to reach for easy solutions."
"It may or may not be a coincidence that the food culture promoted on TV promotes that, while fruits and vegetables are more linked to sit-down meal occasions."
"People don't absent mindedly grab an apple or a banana, it's more likely to be processed food. So television may be a marker for a type of family culture," she added.
"Secondly, TV meals did tend to be found more (in homes) with less educated mothers, those who had lower scores when asked about the attributes of food and attitudes about disease," Coon said, adding that watching while eating was also more likely in single parent households.
"The last hypothesis which may be the most powerful in a lot of ways is that television itself is having some sort of generalized effect," and the kinds of food more likely to be advertised on TV were reinforcing the family's eating decisions, she said.
Coon said the study did not break down whether the food eaten at the meals studied was carried out from fast food restaurants or prepared at home.
"Families who turn the television off during meals are separating the act of eating from the world contained inside the television set, and to that extent there is a boundary between private family food culture and the food culture promoted on television," the report concluded.
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