Is the 'TV Diet' to Blame for Obesity Rates?

The food you see advertised on TV may look may look good but it could be sabotaging your efforts at healthy eating

Here’s a project that’s got Morgan Spurlock’s name written all over it. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Don’t believe everything you see on TV.” Now new research suggests you shouldn’t eat everything you see on TV, either. A study published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association compared the nutritional content of foods advertised on TV to the current USDA nutritional guidelines. They found that if your daily diet consisted only of foods advertised on TV, you would consume 25 times the recommended allowance of sugar, 20 times the recommended servings of fat, and less than half of the recommended servings of vegetables, dairy and fruits.

You may be thinking: well, who on earth would eat a diet like that? According to the study’s lead author, Michael Mink, Ph.D., the majority of Americans already do. “The combination of foods we observed during the study—what we are calling the ‘TV Diet’—is in fact very similar to the typical American diet: High in salt, fat, sugar and protein, but low in fruits and vegetables,” says Mink, a public health professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga.

Most foods advertised on TV are full of ingredients associated with chronic illness—specifically, the foods in the study had excessive amounts of sugar, meat, sodium, fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Yet they are sorely lacking in the nutrients that help protect against disease, explains Mink. (When was the last time you saw a TV commercial advertising fresh fruit or vegetables?)

Though we might not be able to blame TV ads for all of our health problems, Mink and his team argue that even people who have the strongest genetic susceptibility to obesity will rarely become obese “in the absence of a bad environment.” And since we live in a culture in which sugary, fried, and fatty foods are way too easy to come by, and we don’t have to break a sweat unless we want to, staying healthy and trim requires a lot more willpower and effort than it used to. Being bombarded with TV ads for foods don't offer much nutritional value but don't require much prep either (it’s much easier to throw a TV dinner in the microwave than it is to make a salad, after all) probably doesn't help matters much.

Most foods with an advertising budget, after all, are the kinds of processed foods that are most likely to tempt us. Think chips, candy bars, fast food and sugary cereals. You’ve got to hand it to those advertising execs—they really know what they’re doing. Advertisers know the latest psychology research and develop ads that play into all of our weaknesses. Admittedly, I crave every food I see an ad for. But at the end of the day, we are the ones calling the shots at the grocery store and in our own kitchens. And with TiVo and DVR capabilities, it is easy enough to fast-forward though all of those tantalizing TV ads. I rarely watch TV, and zip past all the commercials when I do, but that doesn’t mean I never crave junk food. It’s just that I know a thing or two about my own psychology, too. Namely, I've realized I’m happier when I eat healthier—and no amount of advertising has yet to convince me otherwise.

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