When social commentators discuss TV characters as role models, much is said about their actions in terms of moral and ethical decision-making; but seemingly much less is said about how they look after their health. Unhealthy Habits: How Are They Represented in Popular Culture?

Bad habits have often in the past been depicted on TV as being more glamorous than they actually are, or portrayed in a less dangerous light; although, admittedly, recent gritty TV dramas like Breaking Bad are doing their part to address the health and psychological problems these habits can lead to in a more serious light.

With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to single out six particular examples of how TV depicts certain unhealthy lifestyle practices and preventable causes of serious illness, and see how these would measure up to reality.


Case 1. Homer Simpson

We’ll start with a Poor Diet. And for an example, one need look no further than Homer Simpson. Obviously we’re meant to take Homer, and the entire programme, as strictly tongue-in-cheek; but how would he fare in real life? 

It goes without saying that a diet so consistently high in saturated fats combined with such a considerable daily alcohol intake wouldn't bode at all well for a person’s blood pressure or cholesterol levels. Raised low-density lipoprotein levels would contribute towards arterial blockages and poor circulation. In addition to type-2 diabetes, there would be a huge risk of encountering massive cardiac problems. Following RDA figures when it comes to saturated fat intake (20g), and drinking sensibly can help to reduce the chances of such health complications. 


Case 2. Joey from Friends

Another example of poor dieting on TV might be Joey from Friends; not necessarily because of what he eats, but How He Eats.

The character can often be seen to apparently consume large amounts of food (usually enough for at least two) in one sitting. But in reality, the body needs time to deal with what you feed it. The more you eat in one go, the harder your system has to work, causing sugar and energy levels to spike and then crash, as well as any number of digestive problems. 

Having an overfull stomach on a regular basis can cause the oesophageal sphincter to become strained, which can lead to digestive acids being ejected upwards. Eating smaller portions, but more often, is a better option, because it helps your body to maintain consistent energy levels, and reduces the chances of acid reflux.


Case 3. Dot Cotton

Smoking is a habit which ASH estimates 10 million people in the UK (that’s one sixth of the entire population) indulges in to some extent. And one of the most famous smokers on these isles is Eastenders character Dot Cotton. She’s been puffing away more or less continuously since the show’s conception in 1985.

But for someone with such a heavy habit, Dot seems in relatively good shape. In reality, someone who has smoked 40 a day for 40 years or more will have severely damaged their bronchial pathways and lung capacity, not to mention their heart function. A long-term 40-a-day habit is thought, on average, to reduce life expectancy by around 10 years.

Many long-term smokers think that their health is beyond the point of redemption, and that little could be gained from quitting. But this isn’t so. The health benefits of smoking (such as an improved sense of taste and smell, and a better capacity to breathe to name just two) often start to become noticeable within a few days.


Case 4. Roger Sterling

Among TV drinkers, Roger Sterling is right up there. Throughout the 1960s period covered in Mad Men, he’s seldom seen without a glass of vodka in hand. 

For someone who is addicted to Alcohol, withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, tremors and sweating may appear over time; and in the long-term, a heftily increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and liver cancer. Roger encounters one or two health scares in earlier episodes, but, after seeming to recover, the lifestyle changes he makes don’t stick and he carries on as before. But, it has to be said, that with continued abuse, these health issues would almost certainly recur with increasing severity.

In 2015, Roger could find the help and advice he needs from a local community alcohol service. There are many charities and groups available which offer non-judgemental support whilst a person goes through recovery and into sobriety.


Case 5. Malcolm Tucker

Malcolm Tucker’s most famous vice as Government Director of Communications is his use of profanity; but his other, more dangerous vice is Stress.

That amount of prolonged, heightened stress at work would definitely take it’s toll on a person’s psychological and emotional health, quite possibly leading to depression. The frequent bouts of anger would cause violent surges in adrenaline and cortisol levels, which would spike his heart rate and his blood pressure, increasing his chances of heart disease and stroke.

Working out an easier, less strenuous workload, or even taking an occasional holiday, would help these hormones to return to normal levels, and give Malcolm's mind and body time to recuperate.


Case 6. Jesse Pinkman

Drug Abuse and Addiction is never a subject which should be tackled lightly, and the depiction of Jesse Pinkman is an example of how damaging it can be. We are given a window into, but arguably only see to a certain degree, the harrowing effects of prolonged methamphetamine use; which can induce molecular and chemical alterations that severely affect brain function. Hallucinations, anxiety, and even psychosis can result from continued use.


Speaking about addictions is the first step towards overcoming them. Your GP is a good place to start. As well as giving you helpful advice, they’ll also be able to point you in the direction of more focussed support groups and counselling services.