Study: TV Ads Promote Unhealthy Diets

Researchers Say Basing Food Choices on Ads Results in High-Sugar and High-Fat Diets

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 01, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

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."

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.

"If you turn on the TV especially when kids are watching, there is anywhere from 50 to 100 to thousands of commercials for unhealthy foods. And you almost never see promotions for healthy foods," he says. "You can't turn on the TV without having all this yummy stuff thrown at you that is cheaper and far more available than healthy foods."

"We know it's a big medical issue to be overweight, particularly in kids. But we are only starting to get to point where we are making societal investments in creating a healthy environment," he says.

Changes are needed on many fronts, he says.

"Corporate responsibility and government regulation and legislation plays a role, as does aggressive education in schools, households, and on TV with public service announcements," Mink says.

These efforts may help combat or counteract some of the negative effects of aggressively advertising unhealthy foods on TV, he says.

Show Sources


Michael Mink, PhD, assistant professor, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Ga.

Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, co-director, George Washington University Weight Management Program, Washington, D.C.

Mink M. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, June2010; vol 110: pp 904-910.

Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director, American Council on Science and Health, New York.

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