The purpose of escapism is that it provides an entertaining insight into something we might not otherwise be privy to: be it a particular time in history, the workings of a particular job, or a lifestyle we don’t know. Furthermore, characters in fiction will take decisions and actions that we might not be able or willing to ourselves, which is obviously what can make them so appealing to watch.
However, what we have in the back of our minds the whole time is that fiction is purely no more than that: fiction. Often, characters being depicted are not subject to the rules which govern real life. If they make poor lifestyle choices, they might not appear to pay for it in the same way we do.
Television has become better over the years at depicting realism. When a character encounters a particular issue or health problem, programme-makers today are more likely to be held to account if they fail to purvey a sense of authenticity. This has certainly been the case for them when tackling subjects such as alcoholism or drug use.
In the real world, diet and nutrition is one area of health being taken more seriously today than it ever has been. Global obesity prevalence, as we’ve discussed before, is climbing, as are other diet-related diseases such as diabetes.
There is much to be said then, for the way eating habits are depicted on television. The choices we make and the habits we develop when it comes to food can have a significant effect on our health in later life. And while we know that TV is just TV, we may still to some extent rely on these depictions to affirm the good or bad notions we harbour.
With that in mind, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at some recent examples of the way certain diets are rendered on television; and examine which characters might be getting it right, and which are getting it wrong:
Let’s review the lead character of Billions first. As the owner and director of a high-flying investment company, Bobby Axelrod can afford whatever he likes. And one of the perks of having a bottomless bank account, is that you can employ a personal chef to prepare all of your meals for you (which Bobby does).
We’re only seven episodes in and don’t know much about Bobby Axelrod or his cook, but we’d wager he has a firm grasp of good nutritional practices. After all, Bobby is in good shape, stays trim, and is able to remain sharp and focussed no matter what problems are thrown at him. These physical and mental characteristics are the hallmark of a healthy balanced diet.
Bobby’ does have a small tendency to the less healthy. Often we’ll see him take prospective business partners to the pizza parlour he’s visited since childhood which he’s heavily invested in. We’ll also see him dishing out and dining on the flavour of a stock of the month, such as when he takes over a candy-bar manufacturing company.
But these instances are few and far between. While he might indulge in the occasional poor diet choice to illustrate a point, he’ll only do so with the same frequency that we’d equate to a ‘treat’.
Verdict: Bobby gets it right.
Obviously, we can’t all afford a personal cook to look after our nutritional needs. But as far as what Bobby consumes, he seems to have achieved the right balance. A diet which is generally healthy, with just the occasional slice of pizza or candy bar as a treat, along with a rigorous exercise programme, helps him to stay trim and on the ball.
The group of friends which feature in The Big Bang Theory may have been gifted with scientific intellect, but they repeatedly demonstrate a poor regard for their own nutritional needs throughout the series. In fact, the majority of characters will typically indulge in a bingeing session in response to a social mishap or relationship blowout; however we’ve singled out Sheldon for particular scrutiny.
With a diet which essentially alternates on a nightly basis between Thai takeout, Chinese takeout, pizza, burgers and cheesecake, we’d think it’s safe money to say that Sheldon consumes way in excess of his daily calorie, fat, saturated fat and sugar RI on a consistent basis.
But as we’ve seen, Sheldon doesn't seem to gain a single pound over the course of the programme. We’re aware that the character is a relatively young one in either his late twenties or early thirties, which might go some way to accounting for a slightly hastier metabolic rate, but this doesn’t explain why Sheldon remains so slim. In the real world, we would expect Sheldon’s prolonged poor dietary habits would drive him to be overweight. Combined with the fact that we rarely see him exercise, we would also speculate that the high calorie and fat content of what he eats would be pushing him down a path towards high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes.
Verdict: Diet overhaul urgently required.
Sheldon’s diet is far from exemplary. As we’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with having the occasional takeaway as the odd treat; but making a habit of it in the way Sheldon and friends do is never going to be good for a person’s long-term health.
If we could give him one piece of advice, it would be to leave the phone on the hook and learn how to cook his own meals from scratch.
If we could give him two, it would be to squeeze some cardio into his routine.
For political manoeuvring alone, the villain in the US version of House of Cards is as sharp as they come. Of course Frank’s inevitable ascent is partly thanks to his ruthless killer instinct, but his mental savvy plays a crucial role too. And a good diet and exercise regime is integral to this.
When it comes to health, however, Frank is something of a contradiction. In the very first episode, Frank’s partner in crime Claire invests in a rowing machine to help him stay in good cardiovascular shape. But he also bonds with her over a cigarette on many nights too.
One dietary guilty pleasure Frank can’t seem to shake is dining out at his favourite rib joint, which opens early especially for him. Of all the dietary vices to indulge in, ribs rank up there with the fattiest. A standard half rack of pork ribs, before the glaze, contains somewhere in the region of 600 calories, and packs around 13 grams of saturated fat. With a rub and sweet glaze added, it’s easy to consume more than your recommended intake of added sugar and salt in just one sitting.
Verdict: Healthier protein hits are available.
Frank’s occupation requires him to work long hours, and thereby necessitates a substantial level of calorie intake. Again, indulging in the odd guilty pleasure is fine; but on a regular basis, there are healthier sources Frank could get his protein and energy hit from. Chicken and oily fish would pack a decent protein punch, but being lower in salt and saturated fat, would make life much easier on his heart.
Although Liv, the lead in iZombie, is a sentient and reasonable member of the undead who has made the decision to put her abilities to good use, her dietary requirements put her in a predicament. To sustain herself, she needs to eat human brains. In an unfortunate twist, her undead state also means that her tastebuds can’t interpret the taste of anything which isn’t either brains or hot chilli sauce. To pad out her meals and make her brains go further, she mixes them with items such as snack noodles, and adds super-spicy seasoning.
Clearly Liv’s diet isn’t one any reasonable viewer is conceivably going to pursue.
However, from a health standpoint, it’s still interesting to look at the general principles of Liv’s diet, which is based on small amounts of protein but mostly carbohydrates to accommodate her night-shift lifestyle. Were Liv not a member of the undead, it’s certainly questionable whether she would be getting all the nutrients she needs.
First off, let’s compare brains (sheep’s in this case) with a more widely available meat: chicken.
Per 100 grams, sheep’s brains contain roughly 80 calories, 12 grams of protein, 10 grams of fat and two grams of saturated fat.
By comparison, chicken breast packs 160 calories, 31 grams of protein, four grams of fat and just one gram of saturated fat per 100 grams.
Chicken breast is then a leaner meat in that it has a lower fat and saturate content, and provides a bigger protein hit. Brains provide less nutrition ‘economy’ for their higher fat content.
For someone on a diet like Liv’s, the limited range of carbohydrates would present an issue too, as would the lack of fruit and vegetables. Minerals and vitamins are essential for bone and tissue health, as well as organ function; to get the full range required, it’s important to maintain a diet which includes a variety of these.
It’s also likely the above diet would be low in fibre, which is crucial for good digestive health and helping to prevent cardiovascular illness. To get the fibre needed, whole grains such as brown rice, bran and beans would need to be integrated.
Verdict: More nutritional variety needed.
Shift work like Liv’s lends it itself to a low maintenance diet, heavily reliant on high carb snack foods. But it isn’t one which is sustainable long-term. To stay healthy in any line of work, it’s important to keep a varied and balanced diet, consisting of the right proportions of major food groups. For this, the Eatwell Guide is essential reading.
Fan of waffles, hater of salads; at one point in Parks and Recreation, the presidential hopeful even wonders out loud why anyone would ever eat anything besides breakfast food.
In reality however, the high-fat, high-sugar qualities of a diet consisting only of breakfast foods like waffles, pancakes and candied bacon would betray Leslie’s relentlessly positive and optimistic demeanour. The short-term effects of a sugar burst would give her the peppy energy hit she needs, but this wouldn’t continue for long. Within a couple of hours, if not sooner, the inevitable sugar-crash would strike, leading to feelings of lethargy and mood swings (of course for Leslie, it’s conceivable that these do occur frequently but take place off camera).
By effectively ruling out any form of vegetables or lean meat, Leslie won’t be getting the sustained energy release she needs to keep on going throughout the day.
Leslie’s sugar-centric diet would obviously present a few issues for long-term health too. She’d be at increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, liver and kidney disease, not to mention poor dental health.
Verdict: No-one can function on sugar alone.
Leslie would need to bite the bullet, and incorporate leaner and more nutritious choices into her diet. This means (yes) swapping breakfast food at lunch for the odd salad, and building an eating plan around protein, vegetables and substantial carbs, as opposed to just sugar.
The Last Kingdom
By contrast, sugar dense, high calorie foods weren’t around in ninth century Britain, so you’ll rarely spot them in Viking-era drama The Last Kingdom. In fact, there is much to be said for the simpler way of eating we had in distant historical times.
The Paleo diet has risen to a state of fashionable prominence in recent years. This featured hunter-gatherer food choices modelled strictly on the basics. That means no processed food whatsoever, and nothing at all farmed which meant no grains, and no dairy; a chief reliance on meats and whole vegetables.
Diets based on Viking times, as depicted in The Last Kingdom, provide a little more leeway. They too are thought to have heavily featured meat and vegetables (which were often boiled), but the development of early agricultural methods allowed the preparation of bread, and dairy farming. Meals would be substantial and contain a variety of nutritious whole foods, crucial in supplying a slow rate of energy release needed for a long day’s work.
However, it should be noted that during this time, clean drinking water wasn’t as easy to come by as it is today. Instead, the drink of choice for many was ale; the perpetual consumption of which obviously isn’t conducive to good liver function.
Verdict: Healthy food choices, but cut-back on the ale.
For food choices alone, we could do worse than follow the Viking example. That means adhering to a form of simplicity by cooking meals from scratch, and avoiding pre-packaged snacks in favour of whole fruits.
One drawback (although some would no doubt view it as a blessing) of being the fastest man on Earth is the sheer number of calories required to fuel a heroic endeavour. The Flash in one episode admits that he needs to consume in the region of 10,000 calories per day which, when you consider the energy he can expect to exert running at the speed of sound (768 mph) for just five minutes (8,800 kcal), sounds plausible enough.
If we forget the figures for a minute though, and reduce Barry’s outlook to its simplest form, it is essentially a healthy one. He stays in shape by consuming no more than the amount of calories he intends to burn off through exercise and other activities. This keeps him in good cardiovascular condition, and helps to keep his heart healthy and ward off illness.
Verdict: Eat as much as you expect to burn.
Really, how many calories you eat depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
None of us are Barry Allen, but those looking to build muscle through a training programme might be able to learn from his philosophy. And that is, that your body simply can’t go without calories fuelling it.
On the flip side of the coin, those who do have a high-calorie diet should take from this that they need to be prepared to burn what they eat through a comprehensive exercise programme. If you’re trying to create a calorie deficit, Barry’s philosophy of overloading isn’t the right way to go.