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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.

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