A new study released by the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital finds TV shows geared toward African-American audiences have more overweight characters and 60% more food commercials than shows that attract a general audience.
In addition, 31% of the food commercials on popular black shows are for sweets and 13% are for soda. On shows for general audiences, only 11% of the ads are for sweets and only 2% are for soda.
African-American shows also have a higher number of obese characters than shows aimed at general audiences –27% of actors on black shows are overweight, but only 2% are overweight on general audience shows.
According to Manasi Tirodkar, an author of the study and research assistant at the University of Chicago’s Children’s Hospital, the programs could be a reflection of weight status in the African-American population, which may help to lessen the stigma associated with being overweight.
While overweight characters portraying self-confidence is a good thing, if those characters are shown eating junk food and participating in other unhealthy actions, they may be viewed as endorsing behaviors associated with obesity, Tirodkar believes.
“The ads and programming content [on black TV shows] may influence the eating behaviors of African Americans,” says Anjali Jain, PhD, senior author of the study and an instructor of pediatrics at the hospital. “More than 60% of African Americans are overweight, compared to 54% of the general U.S. population.”
Obesity increases the risk of many life-threatening diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart diseases, all of which are more prevalent in members of racial and ethnic minorities than in whites.
“We know from previous studies that television influences health behaviors, for instance those related to alcohol and tobacco,” Tirodkar states. “In the long run, this may prove to influence obesity, the way alcohol and tobacco advertising have influenced other heath behaviors.”
Shiriki Kumanyika, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, says the prevalence of overweight black characters in these shows is a mixed blessing. “It’s nice to have a diverse group of African Americans portrayed on TV–the overall acceptance of different weights has to be addressed. I certainly don’t think we should get into portraying unattainable images,” she says. However, Kumanyika points out, the underlying health issues of overweight characters must also be addressed.
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