Stanford study shows movies largely depict unhealthy eating

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Stanford psychologists found that the highest grossing American movies over the past 25 years have largely shown unhealthy diets in a new research study published in late November. 

The study, published in “JAMA Internal Medicine” on Nov. 23, is the result of a year-long survey of the 250 most popular films released between 1994 and 2018. It concluded that the diets shown in the movies predominantly failed to meet U.S. government nutrition recommendations and U.K. youth advertising standards.

Lead author and postdoctoral researcher Bradley Turnwald M.S. ’15 Ph.D. ’19 said in an interview with The Daily that every time food appeared in a selected movie, the research team would study the scene in detail. In addition to types of food, Turnwald said the study also focused on product placements. While the team expected to find more branded products, by building off of prior research they discovered that only 12% of the foods and beverages in the movies were labeled with a specific brand.

Jennifer Robinson, program manager at the Stanford Nutrition Studies Group who was not involved in the study, said that branded products in movies result in two problems. First, they create challenges for parents who are trying to feed their kids healthy foods, but whose children want to eat something that they saw on television instead. Second, the branded products utilize subliminal messaging, according to Robinson.

“You see something on a show and it may not even register,” she said. “And then you go to the grocery store and you’re starving and there’s this trigger of, ‘Oh gosh, that part of the movie was so good so I’ll eat that because then it’s going to remind me of that feeling.’”  

Movie creators most likely use branded products as a form of funding, which is understandable, according to Stanford research dietician Dalia Perelman, who is not affiliated with the study. But if a certain brand is seen in movies repeatedly and associated positively in the viewers’ minds because of that movie, that could lead to people eating at one given restaurant chain instead of elsewhere because of their newfound positive reaction to the brand.

Perelman added that how foods are presented and which character is eating them likely also affects how we perceive diets in film. “I think the attitude the actors have and what personality they were portraying matters,” Perelman said. “If they were a hero or a very successful person then maybe that would have a little more influence.” 

Though, if movies can influence people to eat unhealthy things, they can also influence them to eat healthier foods, according to researchers. 

“Movies portray what’s normative, so it influences our perception. If we are seeing famous Hollywood actors and actresses, or superheroes eat healthier things, it starts to reinforce that this is just what we do, this is normative,” Turnwald said. 

Contact Serenna Redwood at serennaredwood7 ‘at’ gmail.com. 

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Serenna Redwood is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Winter Journalism Workshop.