IT’S not the too-early Christmas decorations that get me — anything that brings a bit of colour to dark November is a plus in my book. What rankles is the premature assault on the senses brought on by all those sumptuous food adverts.
There are still six weeks to go, but the sinful seduction started weeks ago with glossy, beautifully produced pictures of potatoes, roasted golden in goose fat, turkey and stuffing with a bowl of perfectly plump cranberries in the foreground, a slice of thickly iced cake. And on it goes with a let-me-sink-my-teeth-into-it-now appeal.
A picture is not so much worth a thousand words as a thousand calories. Actually, often many, many more but who would take the trouble to count. The folds of the whipped cream atop the mince pie with its little wisp of steam is just too good to resist. If you can hold out until December before letting a morsel of festive fare pass your lips, your willpower is made of steel.
There is no escape either. The supermarket aisles are full of the season’s goodies, while every social media platform, from Facebook to Pinterest, is inviting us to sample the calorific delight that is sitting on a perfectly lit plate. The sauce oozes at the perfect angle; the sugar glaze captures the light just so; the cheesy topping has been browned to perfection.
This is what an obesogenic society looks like. It might sound obvious but those pictures do, in fact, make us eat more. They also prolong the overeating splurge that is Christmas. What was once a three-day blow-out is now more likely to be a three-week eating and drinking spree. And that’s a conservative estimate.
Science tells us that simply seeing food can increase the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin in the body, but a conference on the role of appetite in obesity this week heard just how far-reaching the harmful effects of food advertising can be.
Prof Jason Halford of the University of Liverpool said that appetite control was readily overwhelmed by “the palatability of foods and/or food cue (eg adverts)”.
Speaking at the Safefood All-Ireland Obesity Action Forum in Dublin on Tuesday, he said adverts that played on the taste of a product had an even more pronounced effect on people who were already obese. Studies show that overweight people have a compromised appetite system and they are more likely to be affected by the kind of advertising that encourages them to overeat.
It has also been shown that overweight people process food differently; they tend to eat more, yet don’t feel full, because they have lower levels of the satiety hormone, PYY.
The conference also heard that appetite was genetic and that babies already showed huge variations in how much milk they wanted in the first few weeks of life. That has implications for weight gain later in life, said Dr Clare Llewellyn, a lecturer in behavioural obesity research at University College London.
Add to that the ever-growing tangle of environmental factors and you begin to appreciate the extremely complex nature of the problem facing the world right now.
It is encouraging, at least, to see conferences like this one taking place. They help us to understand that the problem is multi-faceted and will need to be tackled on several fronts.
The range of measures included in the Government’s National Obesity Plan certainly reflects that reality but you can’t overstate the scale of the problem. Six-in-10 adults and one-in-four children in Ireland are now obese, according to Health Service Executive (HSE) figures.
Yes, of course, we must show restraint. But, as the experts have outlined, sometimes it’s not as easy as that. As Prof Halford explains: “Behaviour is very difficult to change and in an obesogenic society, it is damn near impossible.”
You can go into any garage and consume up to a thousand calories without even realising that you have eaten half of your recommended daily intake of food. It’s particularly worrying to see how children respond to food advertising on TV. All of them – those considered lean and overweight – responded to adverts by changing their food choices and eating more.
The children who were overweight were even more susceptible to the ads; they remembered more of the adverts and were more likely to be influenced by them to eat more.
Getting back to the pre-Christmas bonanza; is it reasonable to ask food manufacturers to take some responsibility for the kind of advertising that goes out at this highly charged time of year?
Any measure to oblige food or drinks manufacturers to temper their message with a health warning would certainly be met with spirited objections, though maybe now’s the time to consider it.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways forward is to start to redefine what we consider to be tasty.
At the conference on Tuesday, Dr Mary McCarthy of University College Cork said she had done a Google image search using the words ‘tasty food’. It yielded a range of photos of unbalanced and unhealthy dishes, packed with burgers, pizzas and chips.
She did the same for ‘healthy food’ and while the result was colourful and packed with fruit and veg, some of them were less than appetising – there was a fish head, a single apple, a sprig of broccoli. “It’s the wrong message to be sending out,” she said.
So back to the inescapable Yule drool. Should advertisers be forced to include a health warning on those manipulative photographs? Or, at the very least, nutritional information that is visible and clear.
Some food manufacturers mention that their product should be enjoyed as part of a calorie-controlled diet, but then they go on to use every ploy in the advertisers’ trick book to tempt us to overindulge. It’s time to call them on it.