Television, Diet and Advertising:
Why Watching TV Makes You Fat

by Ron Kaufman

"In 1999, an estimated 61 percent of U.S. adults were overweight, along with 13 percent of children and adolescents. Only 3 percent of all Americans meet at least four of the five federal Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for the in- take of grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meats. And less than one-third of Americans meet the federal recommendations to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week, while 40 percent of adults engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all."
-- from "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity," December 2001.

Americans are getting fatter. The modern lifestyle of computer screens, video games and television is resulting in Americans not exercising and eating poorly. Though computers and video games certainly have an effect on diet and lack of exercise, no medium is more widespread throughout the United States than television. The United States is home to 281 million people, 219 million television sets, more than 1,500 individual TV broadcast stations, and about 9,000 different cable systems (statistics from the CIA World Factbook 2002). Americans watch a lot of TV, eat a lot of junk food, and don't exercise enough.

The number of children, teenagers and adults that are overweight and obese is quite alarming. The US government's Health and Human Services Department (HHS) reports that nearly 61 percent of US adults and 13 percent of children and adolescents are overweight. The number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980. Of the 61 percent of overweight adults, nearly half are characterized as obese. And the numbers are rising. Health officials estimate that within five years, four out of 10 adults will be obese.

Overweight means that someone possesses an excess of body fat (measured by a Body Mass Index). The common statistic is that women should have 20 percent body fat, while men should have 15 percent. Women with more than 30 percent fat and men with more than 25 percent fat are considered obese.

The HHS Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 300,000 deaths a year are caused by obesity. Other health concerns due to poor weight control are increase in heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes type 2 (the CDC says more than 80 percent of people with diabetes are overweight), increased risk of cancer, breathing problems, arthritis, reproductive complications, gall bladder disease, and other problems. Weight problems are also associated with depression, limited mobility and decreased physical endurance.

In July 2002, the CDC launched a campaign called VERB: It's What You Do! to try and increase awareness about these problems in children. The campaign focuses on increasing physical activity and improving diet. Overweight and obese children will often become overweight adults. The VERB press release states it is "a national, multicultural media campaign intended to promote physical activity and community involvement and displace unhealthy, risky behaviors among 9 to 13-year-olds, an age group known in marketing terms as "tweens." The campaign encourages tweens to find a verb (such as run, paint, sing, dance,
jump, skate, etc.) or several verbs that fit their personality and interests. The campaign then encourages tweens to use "their verb" as launching pad to better health and make regular physical activity and community involvement a lifetime pursuit."

The CDC notes that "one-fourth of children in America spend four hours or more watching television daily and only 27 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 engage in moderate physical activity at least 30 minutes a day on five or more days of the week."

According to the CDC, lifestyle behaviors is one of the major factors contributing to obesity in children and adults. Genetics does play a role, however, many health risks have been proved to significantly diminish when physical activity increases and diet improves. One major suggestion by health officials is a reduction in "screen time." The VERB campaign promotes a decrease in time spent in a sedentary-TV-watching position and replace it with positive physical and prosocial activities.

"The average tween spends four and a half hours each day in front of a screen. This includes watching television, video-tapes or DVDs, playing video games, using a computer or browsing the Internet. Television is the medium with which children spend the most time -- two and a half hours each day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a position paper in February 2001 which noted that its research has shown that "children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the messages conveyed through television, which influence their perceptions and behaviors. Many younger children cannot discriminate between what they see and what is real. Research has shown primary negative health effects on violence and aggressive behavior; sexuality; academic performance; body concept and self-image; nutrition, dieting, and obesity; and substance use and abuse patterns."

The AAP report went on to present some moderate guidelines that pediatricians should recommend to parents:

  1. Limit children's total media time (with entertainment media) to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day.
  2. Remove television sets from children's bedrooms.
  3. Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.
  4. Monitor the shows children and adolescents are viewing. Most programs should be informational, educational, and nonviolent.
  5. View television programs along with children, and discuss the content. Two recent surveys involving a total of nearly 1500 parents found that less than half of parents reported always watching television with their children.
  6. Use controversial programming as a stepping-off point to initiate discussions about family values, violence, sex and sexuality, and drugs.
  7. Use the videocassette recorder wisely to show or record high-quality, educational programming for children.
  8. Support efforts to establish comprehensive media-education programs in schools.
  9. Encourage alternative entertainment for children, including reading, athletics, hobbies, and creative play. (Pediatrics. Volume 107, Number 2. February 2001, pp 423-426)

Television does not promote a healthy lifestyle. Junk food advertising can be viewed with regularity on TV. The whole "process" of watching television is not an active one. And most likely, the diet accompanying TV-watching is high in sugar, fat and calories. Television is Doritos, Cheetos and Lucky Charms. Television is Coors, Budwieser and Miller Genuine Draft. Television is sitting in a sofa and not moving. And there's nothing jovial about McDonald's "Happy Meals."

Eat Healthy
Advertising Age reports that $46 billion was spent on TV advertising in 2001. Obviously, television advertising is big money. In 2001, Anheuser-Busch spent $285 million to promote Bud Light, Michelob and others on TV -- Coca Cola spent $357 million -- General Mills spent $510 million to talk up the Pillsbury Doughboy and Bugles corn chips -- McDonald's spent $590 million -- and PepsiCo spent $570 million marketing Frito-Lay and Pepsi cola on TV. Believe it or not, all these numbers are actually down from the previous year. The result of all this huge expenditure is that regular-viewing American television audiences are exposed to between 10,000 and 20,000 commercials a year. Corporations spend millions on TV ads for a reason: they work.

Research suggests that food choices are, in part, effected by TV advertising and that most TV advertising is for food with questionable nutritional value. One study performed at Purdue University shows a strong link between food preference in small children and colorful television advertising. Another done at Louisiana State University and presented to the American Heart Association shows that most ads during high child viewing hours are for sugary breakfast cereals, candy snacks, and fast food. Researchers also found that commercials didn't really even focus on the food, but on lifestyle and "having fun."

"This study cannot confirm an association between the products advertised and the health status of children and teens," said Marlene M. Most, researcher for the LSU study, which was presented to the American Heart Association's Asia Pacific Scientific Forum on April 24, 2002. "However, our findings suggest that if young people were to consume many of the products being advertised to them, and also had a decrease in physical activity, this could contribute to obesity and heart disease." Co-author, John Windhauser noted that “kids need to get out more. They sit there in front of the television all day, or play video games, and never get any exercise."

Though most research does focus on children, adults can also be influenced the same way. However, protection of children is of special concern. Many products are marketed especially for children and contain large amounts of sugar and fat. General Mills' Fruit Gushers, Frito-Lay's Cheetos and many many others are packaged with cute cartoon characters to attract young children. It is naive to believe that hundreds of millions spent on advertising each year has no effect of eating habits. When coupled with the fact that obesity is reaching disturbing proportions, TV advertising and diet are certainly linked.

Pepsi, M & M's, Bugles, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Burger King, Snickers, Trix, Starburst, Pop-Tarts -- it is debatable whether the popularity of these products is the result of "they taste good" or effective marketing campaigns. Either viewpoint does not diminish the fact that these products are not good for the human body.

What makes up junk food? Junk food is basically a slang term for food with limited nutritional value -- also known as empty calories. If you look on the label of something and the first two ingredients are a fat or sugar -- it's junk. Sugars include sucrose, dextrose, honey, fructose, maltose, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, glucose, molasses, corn syrup, corn sweetener, and brown sugar. Food labels show ingredients in order of amount so the first thing on the list is what is used most. Fatty oils are also warning signs. Many junk foods are processed using high-fructose corn syrup, saturated fat, hydrogenated oils or salt (sodium).

Limiting fat and cholesterol (both shown to increase risk of heart disease) are certainly considerations, but don't be fooled that a food is good just because it is low in these areas. For example, the breakfast cereal Trix from General Mills has 1 gram of fat per serving and zero milligrams of cholesterol -- however, its first 10 ingredients include: Corn meal, sugar, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, modified corn starch, corn starch, salt, guar gum, gum arabic and high fructose corn syrup -- it's basically all sugar. The TV ads for Trix have a cartoon bunny rabbit that plays with small children and says, "Trix Are For Kids!!"

Along with packaged junk food, is fast food from McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and others. These restaurants deep fry a lot of their menu in high fat oils. The Minnesota Attorney General put out a nice description of the nutritional content of fast food. One McDonald's hamburger and fries will be over the daily recommended allowance for fat and a Taco Salad at Taco Bell will be over the recommended allowance for fat and sodium. If all someone ate was one Taco Bell Salad a day and nothing else, then they would be OK. A supersized fast food meal exceeds 1,600 calories, more than most people should be eating in one whole day. Fast food is greasy and fattening and not good for digestion.

A study presented to the American Heart Association on March 9, 2003, shows a strong link between obesity, fast food, and television watching. Researcher Mark Pereira, of Boston's Children's Hospital, presented data that showed a 50 percent greater risk of obesity for people who eat fast food twice or more a week. This same group had double the risk of abnormal glucose control and an inability to break down sugar. Pereira also noted that people who eat fast food twice a week and spend at least 2 1/2 hours a day watching television have triple the risk of both obesity and abnormal glucose control when compared to those who eat out once or less and watch no more than an hour and a half of TV.

"It's clearly the composition of fast-food meals that we feel plays a role, with a lot of saturated fat and low-quality carbohydrates, white bread and lots of soda," said Pereira. "It's a dietary pattern that is opposite of what's recommended for health."

Eating healthy is easy. Cut down on junk food snacking while sitting in front of the TV (or eliminate the TV entirely). If you must snack, cut up some fresh crispy vegetables and dip them in Fat-Free Ranch dressing. Fat-Free baked corn chips with salsa isn't bad. Rather than chugging a beer, try coffee or tea. Juice is good and try filling the glass with 1/3 juice and the rest water. Switch to whole wheat bread and crackers (whole wheat will burn slower and produce more energy). The CDC presents a number of good ways to eat healthy and from the US Department of Agriculture is also a great source of information.

Eating sensible portions and breaking down daily meals into food groups will help. Servings are usually considered about as big as your fist, but some sources say a little less and some say a little more. Many nutritionists talk of the "food pyramid" where bread and grains are the most eaten types of food and oils and fats are used sparingly.

The food pyramid's per-day suggestion is to eat:

Learning to eat healthy is easy and fun. There are lots of places on the Internet to find recipes and healthy eating tips. Ask coworkers, friends and family members what they do to eat healthy. The human body regenerates its cells constantly, so you really are what you eat. Here are some general healthy eating tips:

Fats, Oils, & Sweets

Milk, Yogurt, & Cheese

Meat, Poultry, Fish

Vegetable Group

Fruit Group

Bread, Cereal, Rice, & Pasta Group

The best thing about eating healthy is that food tastes good without excessive amounts of sugar, salt, oil and grease. It does take a little more effort to eat healthy and plan nutritional meals. Certainly, buying a bag of Fritos for lunch is easier than cutting up carrots and celery the night before. But look at the alternative: fat, overweight and at risk for multiple health problems. Learning to eat better and even learning to cook on a regular basis is the only way to ensure a long and healthy life. Fruits and vegetables are natural -- made in the wild -- created by God. Snickers bars, Pepsi and Supersized French Fries are not.

Exercise Regularly
Along with healthy eating is regular exercise. Without exercise, weight cannot be lost and real health gains are not achieved. The President's Council For Physical Fitness issued a brochure that shows calories used per hour in a variety of activities (for an 150 pound (68 kg) person): light housework burns off 246 calories per hour; swimming burns 288; walking burns 198; scrubbing floors burns 440; jogging burns 654; bicycling burns 612; weight training burns off 756; and sitting quietly watching TV burns off 84. Consider that six restaurant-style corn chips have about 150 calories (plus 8 grams of fat) and four creme-filled cookies have around 220 calories (or more) it is obvious that watching TV will not help anyone lose weight.

Aerobic exercise will burn calories, strengthen the heart and muscles and condition the lungs. The word "aerobic" is Greek and means "with oxygen." The more oxygen that is used, the more the body has to work to create energy. The body gets energy from fat cells and burning those cells is what produces weight loss. According to the CDC and President's Council, an average person should engage in at least 20-40 minutes of physical aerobic exercise at least three times a week. This is actually a lot less time than most people spend watching TV.

The benefits to exercise are numerous: increased muscle tone, improves flexibility, enhances endurance, strengthens the heart and fights depression. Exercise also helps achieve significant weight loss. Weight training with either free weights or universal-style, is also excellent for the body. Weight training increases muscle strength and reduces fat, can increase bone mineral density, reduces risk of diabetes and heart disease, fights back pain and arthritis, helps become a better athlete, and improves overall mental health.

One great program is Body-for-LIFE which is a comprehensive program of healthy diet, weight training and aerobic exercise. Health clubs and local gyms also provide training and exercise programs. Once started, exercise usually becomes fun and addictive. Great activities are brisk walking, running, swimming, bicycling, and weight circuit training. Other activities that provide outstanding exercise are yoga, cardio kick-boxing (which is usually non-contact), karate, nature hiking, organized sports -- and anything else that gets someone off the couch, gets the heart pumping, the blood flowing and the lungs breathing.

Of all the possible activities in the world, sitting and watching television is probably the most unhealthy. From the advertisements for junk food, to eating junk food, to not exercising, TV promotes a fatty, sugary, sedentary lifestyle. In his book, Body-for-LIFE creator Bill Phillips talks of an "Intensity Index" when exercising: "On the low end -- at level 1 -- you've got the intensity of sitting on the couch watching TV. Level 2 would be standing; level 3 might be walking; level 4 might be carrying a couple of bags of groceries in from the car; level 5 might be carrying those groceries up a flight of stairs; and so on up to level 10, which is an all-out 100 percent focused effort."

Get your intensity up! Put forth 100 percent effort! Get your ass off the couch and exercise!

Eat your vegetables: don't become one!


© 2003 by Ron Kaufman

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