We’ve all had it happen: click on the TV in those witching hours between lunch and dinner—or between dinner and bed—and suddenly we’re craving stuffed-crust pizza, triple-decker hamburgers and crispy, crunchy tacos instead of the carefully and healthfully planned food sitting in the fridge. It’s not the end of the world if we indulge those advert-inspired cravings once in a while, but what would happen if we ate what we saw all the time?
Tom Lamont, a young reporter for The Observer in the UK, wondered exactly the same thing, and he set out on an experiment to eat only what he saw advertised on TV for an entire month.
Lamont knew he wouldn’t be getting his recommended servings of fruits and veggies every day, but he thought he would be able to make reasonably healthy choices. How bad could it be?
Turns out, pretty bad.
While his young man’s metabolism saved him from massive weight gain (he actually lost a little weight—probably from muscle loss), the intangible effects were more serious. In his article, Lamont describes debilitating feelings of sluggishness and mental fatigue, not to mention pimples and an unmistakable pallor. His mood was also taking a definite turn for the worst:
At the end of a particularly bleak day my girlfriend saw fit to stage an intervention, ambushing me with a rule-breaking plate of salmon and beans for dinner. Was I imagining it, in the aftermath of the meal, when I immediately started to feel better? “No, no,” [Dr.] Briffa assured me, “these things can be incredibly immediate. It’s a bit like stopping smacking yourself in the face with a polo mallet. Immediately there’s relief.”
Unsurprisingly, advertising in the UK isn’t that different from advertising in the US. Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association looked at the foods advertised during 84 hours of prime-time programming and 12 hours of Saturday-morning cartoons broadcast over the major US networks during one month in 2004. When the researchers tried to construct a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet based only on the foods being advertised, they ended up with daily meals that had 20 times the daily recommended amount of fat and almost a month’s worth of sugar—in a single day!
In the year the study took place, manufacturers spent $11.3 billion on advertising food products, while the US Department of Agriculture only spent $268 million on nutritional education. Barely a drop in the bucket.
As if that weren’t bad enough, a study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that childhood obesity wasn’t directly linked to the amount of TV kids were watching, but to the number of junk food commercials they saw while they were watching. And, a study by Yale University showed that food advertisements on TV increased mindless snacking on any available food in both kids and adults.
The outcomes of this research and Lamont’s experiment probably aren’t surprising to anyone who knows anything about a balanced diet, but the idea of an extreme TV diet serves as a good reminder that we can’t always trust what we see on television.