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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

Nutritional Content of Advertised Foods continued...

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."

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health in New York, says the blame should not be placed on advertisers.

"The marketers are encouraging the viewers to purchase what they want to eat," he says. "The fact that there are more ads for ... disfavored foods should not be construed as the overarching reason why such foods are purchased and consumed by the public," he says. "It's because these foods are tasty and delicious."

Ross does think that public education about healthful food choices is a good idea.

But "why should the food companies do it?" he asks. "Why not have those public service announcements be put out by the government, and/or the medical and nutritional societies?"

Unhealthy Eating Habits

Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, co-director of George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, D.C., says these TV ads do have a role in promoting unhealthy eating habits, and ultimately, obesity.

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