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Study: TV Ads Promote Unhealthy Diets

Researchers Say Basing Food Choices on Ads Results in High-Sugar and High-Fat Diets
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

June 2, 2010 -- TV ads for mac-and-cheese, crunchy fried chicken, golden french fries, or gooey chocolate chip cookies may whet your appetite, but if you make your food choices based on what you see on TV ads, your diet would tip the scale toward unhealthy.

In fact, you would actually eat 25 times the recommended servings of sugar, 20 times the recommended servings of fat, and less than half of the recommended servings of vegetables, dairy, and fruits each day, according to a study in the June issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Eating just one of the advertised foods could on average supply you with more than three times the recommended daily servings for sugar and two and a half times the recommended daily servings for fat.

"We have enough information about the health effects of unhealthy foods to start requiring warning labels for food that is imbalanced, much like we see on cigarettes, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals today," says study researcher Michael Mink, PhD, an assistant professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga.

For example, advertised foods that surpass an entire day's worth of fat and sugar in a single serving should be labeled as such, he says.

Unless and until this occurs, "the safest thing [to] do is ignore advertisements altogether and select foods based on official nutritional guidelines [and learn] how to recognize foods that contribute to a healthy diet and foods that don't," he says.

Nutritional Content of Advertised Foods

Mink and colleagues observed food ads that were broadcast during 84 hours of prime time television and 12 hours of Saturday morning TV during the fall of 2004. The latter was designed to capture ads directed toward children. The advertised foods were then analyzed for nutritional content, and portion sizes were converted to the appropriate number of servings.

The researchers found that the ads did not comply with Food Guide Pyramid recommendations in any food group except for grains.

If a person were to make their food choices based on the ads, they would get:

  • 2,560% of the recommended daily servings of sugar
  • 2,080% of the recommended daily servings for fat
  • 40% of the recommended daily servings of veggies
  • 32% of daily dairy requirements
  • 27% of their daily requirements for fruit

They would also get way too much protein, total fat, artery-clogging saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and too few carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, the study shows.

"The sad thing is that no ads stood out because they were all so similar," Mink tells WebMD. 

"I did notice one trend that was a bit frustrating," he says. "Even though a lot of restaurants have introduced healthier menu items, these did not appear in the food ads we observed."

Food ads work, he says.

"People will consume more of a food after seeing it advertised, [and] we know that Americans watch a lot of TV -- around seven hours per day on average," Mink says. "TV ads encourage people to eat foods that are extremely high in sugar and fat and extremely low in fruits and vegetables. We cannot say that watching TV will make a person eat too much, [but] what this study does suggest is that TV ads endorse the over-consumption of foods that are high in fat and sugar, which are associated with overweight and chronic illness."

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