Diet Based on TV Ads Makes People Fat, Unhealthy

If you were to eat only foods advertised on TV, you would get more than 20 times the recommended fat and sugar, but less than half of the suggested amounts of vegetables.

Commercials have long been criticized for pushing people toward unhealthy foods. The new study points out just how bad those skewed messages are to our health -- contributing to obesity, heart disease and more.

"The thing that really struck us is that this is a double whammy," said Michael Mink, a public health researcher at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga. "You're getting too many of the things that are associated with a higher risk of illness and too few of the nutrients that are associated with protecting us from illness. It's the worst combination."

Television is the primary source of nutrition and health information in America, studies show, with more than $11 billion spent on food-related advertisements in 2004. The same year, the United States Department of Agriculture spent just two percent of that amount on nutrition education.

Diet Based on TV Ads Makes People Fat, Unhealthy

Most food ads are for processed and fast foods, and studies show that advertising influences what types of food people prefer, said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd center for Food Policy and Obesity.

"Why would the industry spend the billions of dollars that they do if it didn't have any impact?" he said. "We have let the food industry have free reign in what they advertise, how much advertise and to whom the advertise. And the nation is paying their price for this."

To quantify what that price actually is, Mink and colleagues videotaped 84 hours of primetime TV programming and 12 hours of Saturday morning shows from the four main networks in the fall of 2004.

From the more than 3,500 commercials that appeared throughout the tapes, more than 600 were for food, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and the food ads endorsed more than 800 individual food items. None of the 116 public service announcements that appeared during the study period addressed nutrition.

The researchers averaged the nutrition information of all the advertised foods and then created a 2,000-calorie diet out of the results. They found that this TV diet, even if it provided the appropriate number of calories, would supply 25 times a day's recommended amount of sugar and 20 times the recommended amount of fat. That's like eating an entire month's worth of sugar in just one day, Mink pointed out.

The TV diet would be too high on protein, sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol, which can lead to heart problems. But it would offer just 35 percent of the recommended amount of vitamin D, 55 percent of the recommended amount of calcium and 50 percent of the recommended amount of magnesium -- deficiencies that can lead to osteoporosis. Among other protective nutrients, the diet would also be too low on vitamin E, potassium and fiber.

Even though the researchers collected data for this study in 2004, Brownell said, the problem is just as bad today, if not worse. In one of his own recent studies, Brownell and colleagues found that the least healthy cereals are the ones most aggressively marketed to children.

They also found that the average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads on TV each year, mostly for brands that are high in sugar and sodium and low in fiber.

When given highly sweetened cereals, another study found, kids tend to eat twice the recommended serving size, but they'll eat an appropriate amount if given low sugar cereal. It's as if food companies are directly setting out to make kids fat, Brownell said.

"I think parents see this kind of information and feel they need to do something to protect their children and that can include working with children to resist ads," he said. "But even more important is for people to become a political force, to urge their elected officials to change the marketing landscape and to put pressure on the food companies to change what they're doing."