The TV diet: Pushing diabetes, obesity & poor nutrition

4267736366_007e968a0f_bA recent posting raised the prospect that shoppers at health food establishments may be less likely to be obese, and therefore at lower risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. Of course they have to pay more for those nutritious temptations than the average shopper at your corner grocer. The socio-economics of diet, diabetes, and disease run deeper than that. For example, which type of shopper is more likely to heed marketing messages and make diet decisions based on what they’ve seen advertised on TV?

A new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association side steps the demographic questions, but considers the nutritional quality of foods advertised on the tele. After analyzing advertising in some 96 hours of network television, for portion size and nutritional content, researchers found that in general the fare being hawked was high in fat, salt, and sugar, and low in most essentially vitamins, minerals and fiber.

OK, that’s not mind blowing or entirely unexpected. But what is interesting to consider is the nutritional consequences of feeding yourself purely from advertised foods. A 2,000 calorie diet of such foods would, for example, provide 25 times the recommended amount of sugars and 20 times the recommended amount of fat. Its as if the food industry was marketing the quickest way for you gain weight, get diabetes, and increase heart disease risk. What would be lacking? Half the recommended amount of veggies, fruits, dairy and fiber. Specific nutrients that are oversold: saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, protein, selenium, niacin, and thiamin. Among those that are undersold: fiber, vitamins A, E & D, calcium, potassium, iron, and phosphorus.

To address this perceived problem, the researchers call for nutritionally imbalanced foods to carry warnings similar to those seen on prescription drugs that are advertised to the public. They also suggest a three-pronged educational approach:

1. Inform the public about the nutritional imbalance inherent in foods advertised on TV, and how it places them at risk of obesity, diabetes, and other conditions.

2. Use interactive game-style educational tools that actually teach consumers how to select healthy foods for nutritionally well-rounded meals.

3. Direct consumers to established nutritional guidelines and reliable sources of diet information.

Some of these suggestions are of course already in effect, with perhaps little impact. We’ve all seen the food pyramid, and who doesn’t know that greens are good and fats are bad? And its not clear that how many people actually believe that foods advertised on TV are the healthiest of choices. Our societal shift towards informing consumers would seem to support the “nutritionally imbalanced” warning labels on food packages, as well as disclosure about imbalanced nutritional content in advertised foods. The idea about interactive, educational gaming seems especially exciting, though. As the number of online gamers grows, and their demographic expands, and the epidemic of obesity and diabetes rages on, why not create something that’s fun and educational at the same time?

Photo credit: The author