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Are Fast-Food Advertisers Playing You?

How teens can outsmart fast-food advertising to avoid obesity.
By Julie Taylor
WebMD Feature

Teen flipping through magazineDid you ever think that watching your favorite TV show could be hazardous to your health?

It can be, when you consider what you're seeing during commercial breaks. A study of almost 100,000 food ads on TV showed that 89% of ads that teenagers see are promoting products high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium.

With the average teen in the U.S. seeing 15 food ads a day, commercials' influence on you can add up, especially when you consider that these ads can affect how you eat without you knowing it. And that's where the danger lies. A study by researchers at Yale University found that kids eating a snack while watching TV ate 45% more during and after food ads.

So how do you spot unhealthy food advertisements and shield yourself against them?

Don't Get Duped by Fast-Food Ads

When you do see a fast-food commercial, think about the way advertisers are showing their products to you. Are they telling the whole story?

Just because fast-food marketers try to get you to buy fatty, sugary foods doesn't mean you have to let them get inside your head.

Supersized = Super-bad
Ads push supersized meals, promising better value for bigger portions. "These commercials remind you that you can get an inordinate amount of unhealthy food for a very low price," says Cara Natterson, MD, a pediatrician in Santa Monica, Calif. That can make them hard to resist when you're hungry and strapped for cash. But the ads don't tell you that jumbo portions are not good for your health; they just add more calories, sugar, and unhealthy fats. "The portion sizes that ads suggest are just completely out of control," Natterson explains.

Over the years, portion sizes -- or the amount of food being eaten in one sitting -- has grown by a lot. If you were served a cheeseburger 20 years ago, it likely would have weighed in at 333 calories. Order a cheeseburger today and you're likely to get something nearly double the size -- 590 calories! That's too much to eat at once, especially when paired with fries and a soda, to be considered healthy. Over time, mega-meals can add up on your waistline and take a toll on your health. To burn off the difference in calories between the old portion and today's jumbo sandwich, a 130-pound person would need to lift weights for an hour and a half.

Hidden Health Hazards
Pausing to think about an ad before you buy (or even doing a little research about what you see) is important because it can be hard to spot the hazards at first glance. You may even think what's being sold is healthy because of how it is presented -- when it isn't, says Linda Bartholomay, LRD, a nutritional therapist at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D.