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Background:  Current predictions suggest that by 2050 over half of the adult population will be classified as obese (Foresight Report, 2007). The media is a known platform for nutrition education and research indicates that health magazines specifically are highly influential in terms of their impact on health and diet (Hill, 2006). Whilst studies have examined the influence of magazine advertising on food choice, none have analysed the nutritional content of magazine diets in relation to healthy eating guidelines, or their influence over healthy dietary behaviours. The aim of this study was to identify whether the diets published in magazines adhere to national healthy eating guidelines as depicted by the Eatwell Plate (Food Standards Agency, 2007).

Methods:  The 15 best selling diet and health magazines were identified from national sales data and purchased from a single retailer in December 2009, with the cost of each magazine noted. Inclusion criteria were defined as the presence of a health theme, target audience within 18–54 years and incorporation of a 7-day diet plan. Diet plans were analysed using content analysis. Food lists were devised and coded through a deductive approach by cross referencing against the Eatwell Plate and previous content analysis studies. Associated word lists to determine subconscious influence were devised and coded using inductive content analysis. Each diet was analysed for food or word references which were counted against the relevant codes. References were collated as a total across all magazines and presented as the number cited by category as a percentage of the total. Descriptive statistics were used to present the data. Ethical approval was gained from Leeds Metropolitan University Research Ethics Committee.

Results:  Ten magazines (seven women's; three men's) met the inclusion criteria, representing a full target age range and varied cost (£2.60–£3.95). In total 1155 food references and 266 word references were cited. Fruit and vegetables were referenced most frequently (37.7%), exceeding the Eatwell Plate recommendation (33.3%); carbohydrates were referenced poorly (20.5%), below the 33.3% recommendation; protein (22.3%) was above the 13% recommendation; dairy foods (13.5%) met the Eatwell Plate recommendation (13%). No magazine represented an accurate depiction of the Eatwell Plate model. The associated words attracting most references were for fluid (15%), fat (14.3%), protein (11.3%) and energy (10.5%) with protein referenced more often in men's magazines and calories more often in women's.

Discussion:  The lack of evidenced based and balanced dietary information in magazine diets was of concern and contradicted government health promotion strategies. The magazines promoted popular dietary trends as opposed to evidence based healthy eating guidance. The evident repetition of words relating to calories and fat does little to promote healthy dietary behaviours and little emphasis was placed on multi-component dietary and lifestyle approaches.

Conclusion:  The magazine diets did not meet the Eatwell Plate guidelines, highlighting the need for furthercollaboration between the media and health professionals in order to improve public understanding and help shape the future of public health in relation to obesity prevention.

References:  Food Standards Agency (FSA) (2007) The Eatwell Plate. United Kingdom, Government. Available from: <http://www.eatwell.gov.uk> [Accessed on 27 January 2010].

Foresight Report (2007) Tackling obesities: Future Choices, Project Report, 2nd edn. London: Government Office for Science.

Hill, A. (2006) Motivation for eating behaviour in adolescent girls: the body beautiful. Proc. Nutr. Soc. 65, 376–384.