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Food, beverage ads on TV could spur overeating

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During tonight's Super Bowl, the very expensive television ads will get almost as much attention as the game. Those same ads for food could, on other days, be causing children and adults to overeat and fueling the obesity epidemic, experts say.

There is a barrage of food advertising during children's programs and during prime-time television. A random check by The Augusta Chronicle of all four broadcast networks found an average of 21.5 food ads and three beverage ads between 8 and 11 p.m.

The Federal Trade Commission found in 2007 that children see an average of 15 food ads every day. All of that food flashing before them could be "priming" them to snack, according to a study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

In the study, published last year in Health Psychology , Yale researchers showed two groups of children a cartoon, one with food ads and one without, and provided snacks. The children watching the food ads ate 45 percent more than the other group.

"It is a big difference," said lead author Jennifer L. Harris, the director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. "Usually when we do these kinds of studies, we don't see effects that large. That was quite surprising."

It wasn't just children -- adults who watched a program with food ads also ate more than those who watched one without them. This was particularly true for men and "restrained eaters," people who might be dieting.

Food cues appear to have a bigger effect on the dieters, and they tend to eat more when they do because "they'll say, 'What the heck: I already blew my diet; I might as well go all the way,' " Harris said.

Snacking and eating for reasons other than hunger -- what some researchers call "hedonic hunger" -- appears to be on the rise.

"We do know that people are snacking more than they used to," Harris said. Rebutting food industry claims that the ads influence only brand selection, the primed eating is more nonspecific, she said.

"What we found is that it makes people eat whatever is available, not just the foods that are advertised," Harris said.

It could be the ads and television viewing fuel the kind of thoughtless eating that can lead to overeating, said Jessica Baye, a registered dietitian with Medical College of Georgia Hospital.

"It's very, very mindless eating," she said. "It's almost a hand-to-mouth thing. And if you're not paying attention, you can complete an entire bag of chips or a whole thing of popcorn by yourself because you're not being mindful about the eating."

Children in particular could be at risk from food ads, which one study showed make up 70 percent of the ads on Saturday morning programming, Baye said.

"Their programs are saturated with it," she said. "And they're not food ads for broccoli and carrots and yogurt. It is pretty intense, the advertising and the subliminal messages that trigger you to consume."

Other research has already clearly established a link between commercial television and obesity in children, Harris said.

"For children, there is very clear evidence that children who watch more television have higher (body mass indexes)," Harris said, which doesn't hold true for watching public television or videos.

Whether the ads are fueling the obesity epidemic in adults is a harder case to make, she said.

"It certainly doesn't help," Harris said. "You're constantly reminding people about food when they are watching television because of all of the food advertisements. Since most of the foods that are advertised are not healthy, you're reminding them about foods that they really shouldn't be eating very much. That fact I'm sure has an impact on obesity."

The effect lingered even after the television was turned off, she said.

"It's not just that it makes you eat more when you're eating while you're watching television but also immediately after," Harris said. "So that's something to be aware of if you're going to have a snack after you have finished watching television."

That consciousness is one way to combat it, and today with the Super Bowl is as good a day as any to start, said Dr. Charles Stuart Platkin, the creator of TheDietDetective.Com.

"It is just a time of heightened awareness," Platkin said.

"So it is really interesting to be able to bring to people's attention that when they do see a lot of food commercials or they see food posters, that they are being influenced to eat more than they should," Platkin said. "And that once you become aware of that, now you have a responsibility to recognize that and be cognizant of it when you make your food choices. You probably are being influenced, especially those who are underage. You have a responsibility for them."

What's on TV?

The Augusta Chronicle picked four blocks of prime-time programming and counted the number of food ads that appeared between 8 and 11 p.m. (except for Fox, which has prime-time programming until 10 p.m.). There was an average of 21.5 food ads and a little more than three beverage ads per prime-time viewing.

ABC, Monday, Jan. 25

Diet or healthier products 6

Meals/restaurant lunches 6

Snacks 3

Hot dog 2

Sandwich 2

Cereal 2

Hamburger 1

Cookies 1

Soup 1

Gum 1

Groceries 1

Total 26


Sandwich 8

Meals 3

Hamburger 1

Pizza 1

Steak 1

Burrito 1

Total 15

CBS, Tuesday, Jan. 26

Meals 4

Soup 3

Pizza 2

Steak 2

Value meal 1

Groceries 1

Sandwich 1

Cereal 1

Diet products 1

Sweetener 1

Cookie 1

Cheese 1

Rice 1

Total 20


Meals 5

Hamburger 3

Sandwich 2

Gum 2

Pizza 1

Spaghetti sauce 1

Wrap 1

Snack 1

Diet food 1

Groceries 1

Total 18

LOW-CALORIE CLAIMS: A number of food ads touted lower-calorie, healthy or healthier alternatives

Research at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found ads touting nutrition did not increase eating behavior among participants, but these health foods ads are probably "a gray area" that could go either way and bear more study, researcher Jennifer L. Harris said.

Some studies have found that people who go to restaurants offering healthier sandwiches, for instance, tend to eat high-calorie side dishes, she said.

About the series

Obesity is the fastest-growing public health threat facing the country, potentially wiping out health gains from the decline in smoking, experts warn. If unchecked, nearly half the country will be obese by 2018 and account for more than 20 percent of health care costs, according to a recent Emory University study.

Today's stories are part of an occasional series in The Augusta Chronicle on obesity, healthy eating, exercise and living better.

Comments (7) Add comment
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georgiasouthern 02/07/10 - 04:17 am

Its called SELF CONTROL !!!!!!! If you are fat then there is a 99% chance that it is YOUR FAULT!!!!!! Now get off your but away from the tv and EXERCISE !!!! There is a gym on every corner along with miles of river to kayak and bike trails to cycle and jog on.

Petey Aitchess
Petey Aitchess 02/07/10 - 05:21 am
It's Bush's fault!!!

It's Bush's fault!!!

willienelson 02/07/10 - 08:19 am
Just run a couple of ads for

Just run a couple of ads for a good colonic and we're even.

andywarhol 02/07/10 - 03:40 pm
I bet if you flashed

I bet if you flashed thousands of adds for local gyms the same people would sit on their butts. I wouldn't say it is priming them to exercise. If that was the case that would be the answer to obesity. Just replace food adds with adds of people running and exercising. This theory is stupid, and some experts make their living by just countering actual facts to grab your attention. I'm sitting at home waiting for the game without snacks or beer, because I realize I snacked yesterday and drank beer last night. Too easy.

andywarhol 02/07/10 - 03:49 pm
So when a fat little kid is

So when a fat little kid is watching Yo Gabba Gabba and a food commercial comes on, who is going to take him to buy snacks? Is this kid allowed to just take what he wants from the refrigerator or cabinet? Where are the parents? In all obesity cases there is usually an enabler, which is a family member or parent. Eating habits are taught by the parents not tv, which is why you usually see an entire fat butt family together at the buffets.

edwardc 02/07/10 - 03:53 pm
I never think about pancakes

I never think about pancakes until I see them on a tv ad. So far I haven't fallen for it, but it is a struggle. Multi-billion dollar corporations put ads on tv just to spend money and to entertain people, not to make sales. Right?

ColaCountyParent 02/08/10 - 11:18 am
So, andywarhol, do you not

So, andywarhol, do you not have any bad habits. I bet you do. Please tell me so I can point the finger at you the way you are pointing the finger at fat people. Sure, it is our own fault, but either you are a young person who has never had to overcome any roadblocks or a self serving jerk who just likes to talk and make fun of others. Food addiction is just as real as nicotine and alcohol addiction and food is much easier to obtain. My food habits have been ingrained in me, just like bigotry is in you and to try and change them at this stage of the game adds more stress to an already stress filled life.

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