Most popular American movies depict an unhealthy diet

Stanford researchers examined the 250 top-grossing American movies of recent decades and found the on-screen foods and beverages largely failed U.S. government nutrition recommendations and U.K. youth advertising standards.

It’s no surprise that most people in the U.S. don’t follow a healthy diet. But Stanford psychologists wanted to go deeper to find out why people don’t eat healthier even when they know it’s better for them. So they looked at an influential force in American popular culture - movies - to see how they depict foods and beverages on-screen to the public.

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Stanford researchers examined the 250 top-grossing American movies of recent decades and found the on-screen foods and beverages largely failed U.S. government nutrition recommendations and U.K. youth advertising standards.

It turns out: not very well.

In a new study, the Stanford researchers looked at the 250 top-grossing Hollywood movies between 1994 and 2018 - including "Black Panther," "Avatar" and "Titanic" - to quantify the foods and beverages shown on-screen and see how well they align with what the government recommends people eat and what Americans are actually eating.

"Movies portray the types of foods and beverages that are normative, valued and reflective of our culture, so the foods and beverages that the film industry decides to depict matter," said study lead author Bradley Turnwald, a postdoctoral researcher in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. "Audiences look up to famous celebrities, superheroes and role models, and we’re watching what they’re eating and drinking on screen."

The study, published in the Nov. 23 issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, discovered on-screen diets failed federal recommendations for saturated fat, fiber and sodium, and depicted frequent instances of high sugar content and alcoholic beverages. Snacks and sweets, including baked goods, candies and processed salty snacks, were the types of foods that showed up on screen most frequently. About 40 percent of beverages in these movies were alcoholic. Even among the G-rated movies - the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) lowest classification for general audiences with no age restrictions - 20 percent of beverages were alcoholic. A majority of the 250 films analyzed - 88 percent - were accessible to youth with MPAA ratings of G, PG or PG-13.

"The movie-depicted diet largely failed across the board for U.S. government recommended daily intake levels - and it was similar in a lot of ways to what Americans actually eat, which we know to be a mostly unhealthy diet," said Turnwald. "Movies show unhealthy foods as being stereotypical, which Americans then see, which reinforces what is normative. You get this cycle that just spins round and round."

A clear message

To determine just how unhealthy the on-screen foods actually are, the researchers looked to other countries like the United Kingdom that are beginning to restrict the types of food and beverages advertised to youth. Advertising unhealthy foods and beverages is restricted in the U.K. if 25 percent or more of an audience includes youth under age 16. The Stanford researchers applied the U.K. rating system to the set of American movies and found that over 70 percent of movies received food ratings that would be illegal to advertise to youth under the U.K. standard. For beverages, over 90 percent of movies received ratings that would fail U.K. advertising standards.

"What we commonly eat and drink and seem to enjoy shapes what movie production studios decide to depict. At the same time movies shape our preferences, our behaviors and our imaginations," said Hazel Rose Markus, psychology professor and a senior author on the study. "Restricting which foods and beverages are depicted in cultural media, and thus regulating artistic expression, would be an unpopular and un-American solution. Yet given the demonstrated recent culture-shifting power of movies in so many domains - think gender, race, sexual orientation - there is reason for optimism that movies could come to play a major role portraying that Americans eat more than just cake, candy and chips, and in the process, promote healthier food and beverage consumption."

While this study didn’t measure how viewers actually respond to seeing these foods on-screen, the researchers note that prior research has found that when people are exposed to violence, racial bias, binge-drinking and smoking in movies, it can actually increase their engagement in these problematic behaviors.

"We have poured countless resources into educating people about the importance of eating well and providing more access to healthy foods. But these methods only take us so far," said Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology and senior author on the study. "The foods depicted in popular movies send a clear message - not only about what is common to eat but also about what foods are appealing or cool to eat. If our favorite actors and superheroes aren’t eating salads, why should we?"

Interestingly, despite the rising trend of explicit advertising and product placement in movies, the researchers found that only about 11.5 percent of the foods depicted in the movies they analyzed were branded.

"A lot of research has shown that branded product placements for unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks are common in media. However, we were surprised to see that when it comes to movies, 88.5 percent of observations were not branded," Turnwald said. "This shows that it’s not just branded candy bars and sodas that drove down nutrition scores in movies. Depiction of nutrient-poor foods in popular media extends far beyond branded product placements."

An opportunity

In the analysis, water showed up onscreen only slightly more than sweetened beverages. And fruits were the second-most common food depicted in movies. Turnwald believes it’s because fruits were often used as a scene prop in a dining room, office or grocery store setting, but says the team is working on a follow-up study to see which on-screen foods are actually eaten in the films.

The researchers say their study is a first step toward being able to quantify what our popular culture considers normative now and lays the groundwork for future studies to track how that changes in the coming years and decades. "Just like no diet is totally undermined or defined by any one food or one food decision, it’s really about our behaviors and our patterns over time," Turnwald said. "In this study, we found no evidence that movie nutrition scores were improving over the past 25 years, but there is an opportunity moving forward for the film industry to depict healthier diets in the coming years."

Turnwald notes that in Marvel’s Iron Man trilogy, for example, as Tony Stark’s character evolves, so too does his diet, from cheeseburgers and heavy drinking in Iron Man 1 to fruits, green smoothies and raw vegetable plates in later releases.

"The point is not to say that kids shouldn’t ever be allowed to view people eating a cheeseburger - that’s not realistic," said Crum. "Putting the question of regulation aside, I think there is a great opportunity here for movie producers and actors to be empowered by these findings - to be more mindful of and take responsibility for the foods they portray on their screens for millions of people to see."

Other Stanford co-authors on the study, titled "Nutritional Analysis of Foods and Beverages Depicted in Top-Grossing American Movies, 1994-2018," include lab manager Isaac J. Handley-Miner and research assistant Natalie A. Samuels.

The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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