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The TV Diet: What if You Only Ate What's on Television?

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what if you just ate a TV diet, of food that's on television? iStockphoto/Thinkstock

They're all around us -- images of fatty foods, desserts dripping with sugary calories, and those must-have salty snacks.

You can’t turn on your television or flip through a popular magazine without confronting it, and it's even on the Internet.

Mass-media messages not only saturate our world, they wield tremendous influence over our behavior, and that’s just what food companies intended.

In 2004, food makers spent $11.3 billion peddling their products, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees national nutritional recommendations, spent only $268 million — 2 percent of the total that was funneled into food marketing — on nutritional education.

That got Dr. Michael Mink, a public health researcher at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., thinking about mass media’s influence on public health.

What nutritional behaviors are being endorsed by television?

In other words, if we only ate what we saw on television, would the outcome be negative or beneficial?

To study this notion, Mink and colleagues looked at food ads that appeared during 84 hours of prime-time programming and 12 hours of Saturday morning cartoons broadcast on major U.S. networks during one month in 2004.

Then the team calculated the nutritional content of a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet containing only foods that were advertised on television.

It was little surprise that television isn’t the best place to get nutritional advice or that the results exceeded the government’s recommended daily intake of salt, fat and sugar.

But what was surprising was the level of that excess. What these ads portrayed was 20 times the level of recommended fat and 25 times the recommended daily sugar intake.

“That’s almost a month’s worth of sugar in one day,” Mink said in a statement. “But ads contained less than half of the recommended daily servings of fruit, vegetables and dairy.”

Mink says food-advertising campaigns turn the Food Guide Pyramid on its head, skewing toward products that are high in fat, sugar and salt, while guiding people away from foods rich in vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.

"What we really found wasn't just that there was so much sugar and fat," says Mink. "This is sort of a double-whammy: oversupplying the nutrients that create higher risk for illness, and undersupplying the nutrients that protect us from illness."

Advertised foods contained skimpy amounts of 12 essential nutrients, such as fiber, iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, D and E, while delivering a boatload of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium that can lead to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes and some cancers.

Of the 775 foods advertised on TV, they all failed to comply with the Food Pyramid in every group except grains, the study found.

While no single food can prevent a chronic illness such as cancer, evidence does show a plant-based diet with a variety of foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans helps lower the risk of many cancer types.

In laboratory studies, many individual minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals demonstrate anti-cancer effects. Yet evidence suggests it is the synergy of compounds working together in the overall diet that offers the strongest cancer protection, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The TV study was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

For more information about nutrition and health, visit the Department of Agriculture’s web site
Choose My Plate
, an updated version of the Food Guide Pyramid, as well as other resources and information for staying healthy.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and Scuba enthusiast living in San Diego, CA with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.


Nutritional Imbalance Endorsed by Televised Food Advertisements. Michael Mink, Alexandra Evans, Charity G. Moore, Kristine G. Calderon, Shannon Deger. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.110:6:904-910, June 2010. Abstract at:


2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. United State Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition, Policy and Promotion. Access online at:

Foods that Fight Cancer. American Institute for Cancer Research. Access online at:

Reviewed July 24, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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