Expert Commentary: Michelle May, M.D. 1/29/2010

Posted by Admin on January 29, 2010
We live in an abundant food environment. There are far more calories available for each person than are needed for our typical day-to-day activities - or even a moderately active lifestyle. Advertising encourages us to consume those excess calories - and it works, as these studies show.

Food marketing capitalizes on the fact that humans are food suggestible: we want to eat in response to a variety of non-hunger cues. These can be roughly divided into physical, environmental, and emotional triggers. Television food advertising increases eating because it impacts all of these areas so it is a triple threat. Let’s take a closer look at a few examples:

Physical Triggers: A common physical trigger for eating is fatigue. Food ads often depict energetic actors and suggest that a particular food is a great pick-me-up that fuels a full life. At the same time, a late-night viewer who feels tired may unconsciously reach for food instead of going to bed.

Environmental Triggers: The sight of food and seeing someone else eat can trigger cravings. When we see commercials showing attractive people eating delicious looking food, we salivate and crave similar foods (and the fun that apparently comes with it!).

Further, we create associations between paired events, like watching TV and eating. Over time, simply sitting down in front of the television triggers the desire to eat. This habit is reinforced by ads showing sweets or salty, crunchy “trigger” foods.

Emotional Triggers: Boredom is a common emotional trigger for overeating. Since TV watching is a passive experience, eating provides an additional sensory dimension that keeps us more fully engaged. Any other eating incompatible activity would have the same affect (like needlework or folding laundry) but food advertising continually reminds us of one of our favorite past-times.

Another trigger for emotional eating is loneliness. People watch TV to fill a void, just as they eat to fill that same void. Television shows showing people engaged in complicated relationships are punctuated by commercials showing happy people dining together, cooking for others, and sharing food. This combination feeds the association between eating and happier times spent with family and friends.

It is also no coincidence that stress is as much of an epidemic in modern culture as obesity. Food temporarily calms us and provides much needed pleasure and distraction at the end of a chaotic day. It is no wonder that food marketers use phrases like, “you deserve a break today” and “indulge yourself” to suggest that food is the perfect antidote for stress.

Mindless Eating

In addition to playing into our triggers, eating mindlessly in front of the TV is compounded by the fact that we are distracted as we eat. As a result, we consume more than we realize and don’t recognize how full we are becoming. Further we don’t fully enjoy the food so we feel stuffed but strangely unsatisfied, causing us to wander into the kitchen looking for something else to distract, soothe, or give us the pleasure that we are not finding elsewhere.

With increased awareness about your particular triggers, you may discover that the solution is as simple as getting up during the commercials or as complicated as turning off the TV and calling a friend instead. For more information please click here.


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