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Food Overload

Ads blare everywhere. How can you resist eating more?

WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- I'm hungry but on a deadline, so to save time I head for the McDonald's drive-through where I plan to order the grilled chicken sandwich, hold the mayo -- just 300 calories and 5 grams of fat. Making my way to the pick-up window, I drive past large illustrated menus of burgers, fries, milk shakes, and that yummy new yogurt parfait.

But I'd expect these temptations from Mickey D's. The truth is, temptations like that yogurt-with-granola goody aren't the only foods calling my name these days. It seems that once I set foot outside my door (or turn on the television), everyone is telling me to "Eat! Eat! Eat!"

At the mall with my son, I stop at the food-court bakery for a cup of coffee, and he points out the "Buy three cookies, get one free" sign. At dinner with my brother, the waitress hears he is "starving" and offers up potato-skin appetizers dripping in cheese. She waves dessert menus in our faces twice. My grocery store always has someone handing out food samples.

It's frustrating. After overcoming a chubby childhood, I've managed to hold down my weight through a dull but successful strategy of watching my food intake and exercising. But lately I feel like I am losing the tug-of-war between what I know is the right stuff to eat and what some nutritionists call the "pressure to eat."

Yes, It Really Is a Plot

It's not my imagination. The world is trying to make us all fat. It's not as if we're being encouraged to eat our peas and carrots, says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Unfortunately, we are constantly being pressured to eat unhealthy foods."

Every year, the food industry forks over about $11 billion for advertising and another $22 billion on trade shows and other promotions, according to a report on obesity in the January-February 2000 issue of Public Health Reports. In 1998, promotion costs for popular candy bars ranged from $10 to $50 million, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor and chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, who co-authored the article. That same year, McDonald's spent more than a billion dollars for promotion.

With an annual public campaign budget of just $1 million, it's hard for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other governmental agencies to compete, Nestle says. And even then, people complain that the amount is wasteful, especially when Americans keep putting on the pounds, despite the public health messages.

So why aren't there ads coaxing us to enjoy, say, an apple or a peach? Produce growers often view each other as competitors, Nestle says. "And they don't see the value of generic advertising and don't have the same kind of money [as the producers of fast foods and snack foods]. Plain fruits and vegetables are not very profitable compared to processed foods."

Even worse, the messages we get about eating from media and society are often mixed, says Diane Quagliani, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a Chicago dietitian. Magazines brim with food ads but also include diet articles -- driven by ad budgets and their readers' desire to lose weight.

"We are diet-focused," she says, "yet getting fatter and fatter." From 1991 to 1998, the percentage of obese adults -- defined as those with a body mass index of 30 or higher -- rose from 12% to nearly 18%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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