Study reveals unhealthy lifestyles of TV soaps

May 24, 2013

The UK’s favourite soap stars are portraying irresponsible lifestyles, with high levels of unhealthy eating and alcohol consumption, and a total lack of exercise.

That is the conclusion of a new study by The Co-operative Food, which reveals the full extent of the characters’ unhealthy lifestyles displayed during prime-time TV.

Working with Liverpool John Moores University Business School, more than 830 scenes of the UK’s four most popular soaps - Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks - were analysed over a two-week period to provide an in-depth character examination. 

The results revealed unhealthy eating habits, potentially dangerous amounts of alcohol drinking and alarmingly low levels of physical activity.  In total, viewers were exposed to almost 10 times as many examples of characters drinking or referring to alcohol, compared to healthy drinks.  Of all the drinks consumed by characters, 57% were either alcoholic or sugary, compared to just 6% which were considered healthy, while copious amounts of tea and coffee were also drunk.

According to findings, 72% of the food consumed, or referred to, was unhealthy  - three times the amount of healthy food, and the level of exercise undertaken by characters across the four soaps was virtually non-existent, with only five references or examples of exercise across the entire two-week period.

Yorkshire’s favourite village, Emmerdale, was the unhealthiest in the whole of soapland, with 79% of all food-related scenes featuring unhealthy eating, and more than half (53%) of all the drinks consumed, or made reference to, being alcoholic.  Emmerdale had the most examples of adults drinking alcohol in front of children.  In two separate episodes, larger than life old-age pensioner, Sandy Thomas drinks whisky in his den in front of impressionable teenager, Sean Spencer.

Despite having previously suffered a heart attack, Emmerdale’s long-serving, Eric Pollard is the overall unhealthiest soap star, with the highest amount of unhealthy eating and unhealthy drinking of all soap characters.  Eric is either drinking or referring to alcohol in 62% of scenes he’s in, either drinking during the daytime in the Woolpack, or at home, with a glass of red wine by his side while cooking dinner. 

Residents of Albert Square were the second worst-offending soap stars, with 87% of all food eaten, or referred to, being unhealthy.  Smoking levels were the highest, too, with smoking featured in 5% of all scenes, due to the nicotine habits of soap stalwart, Dot Branning, and her wayward stepson, Max Branning.  And, despite the amount of unhealthy food consumed, there were no examples of characters undertaking any form of exercise.

In the leafy suburbs of Hollyoaks set in Chester, the lifestyles of the young and trendy were also surprisingly unhealthy - 64% of all food consumed, or referred to, was unhealthy, and 54% of all drinks were alcoholic.  Across scenes set in the evening, the amount of alcoholic drinks consumed or referred to, increased to a staggering 91%.  During the two-week period, young mum, Theresa McQueen, was the only character to undertake any exercise, with just one trip to the gym.

On the cobbles of Weatherfield, Coronation Street provides a healthier picture when it comes to mealtimes, with 41% of all food consumed, or referred to, being healthy, making Corrie the healthiest soap.  Loveable Fiz Stape has the healthiest diet in soapland, even commenting that the skin on a jacket potato was the “best bit”.  Dev Alahan’s children, Aadi and Aisha, went swimming once during the two-week period, which is more exercise than anyone else on the street.  However, this activity is tempered somewhat by the kids eating a bag of chips each in their dad’s shop afterwards.

The study is intended to raise awareness of the importance of a healthy, balanced diet and coincides with the launch of a new range of healthier products from The Co-operative, designed to make it easier for customers to make healthier and informed choices.

Janet Taylor, Diet and Health Manager, The Co-operative Food, said: “I’m a self-confessed soap addict, but this study clearly highlights the irresponsible approach taken to diet and health by the scriptwriters.  Fruit bowls may feature in a couple of shots, but only one character is shown eating fruit during the entire two-week study - Minute Mart co-owner, Denise Fox, in EastEnders, is seen eating a tangerine while lying on the floor drunk. 

“As a retailer committed to helping people make healthier choices for themselves and their families, we’re hoping that by uncovering the unrealistic and potentially dangerous lifestyles portrayed in the soaps, people will recognise that their favourite characters could run the risk of heart disease and obesity if they adopted these lifestyles in real life. We’re calling on the programme makers to present a more balanced picture.”

Doireann Maddock, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Show producers are cooking up a hotpot full of trouble for our best-loved soap stars by putting them at an increased risk of an on-screen heart attack or stroke.

“Walford, Coronation Street and Emmerdale would be much healthier places if their famous residents were served up a more balanced diet, got active and drank only the recommended amount of alcohol when the cameras are rolling.

“If Eric Pollard wants to reduce his risk of that second heart attack, he needs to spend less time in the Woolpack and more time enjoying brisk walks around the Yorkshire Dales and a diet packed with fruit and veg.”

Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist involved in health education, said: “While we hate to admit it, we are influenced by what we see on TV, yet the effects are subliminal and we're not aware of it. Children and young people are influenced even more than we are by the role modelling and 'normal' behaviours and habits they see on TV.

“There is now well established medical research indicating that child obesity and alcohol consumption are influenced by what children see portrayed within their screen entertainment. For all of us, years of exposure to fictional TV lifestyles normalises and creates baselines for everyday health behaviours, both for better, and in this instance, for worse. Given the generally poor state of the nation’s health, it could be argued it's a case of you are what you watch.”


Additional Information:

The study was conducted by students at Liverpool John Moores University Business School, under the direction of Keith Thompson, and involved analysing the UK’s four most popular soaps, Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks, over a two-week period, from 4 – 15 March 2013 inclusive.

Pen Portraits of key characters:

Emmerdale

Eric Pollard

B&B owner, Eric Pollard, is the unhealthiest characters in soapland.  Eric is either drinking or referring to alcohol in 62% of scenes that he’s in, and eats unhealthy food in 8%.  There are examples of Eric drinking in the pub, and at home, with a glass of red wine by his side while cooking dinner.

Val Pollard

His sharp-tongued wife, Val, is second in the list of unhealthiest characters, and has examples of alcohol in almost half (47%) of all the scenes she appears in.

In one episode, there are two examples of the B&B proprietors, Eric and Val, drinking alcohol in the afternoon.

Sandy Thomas

Larger-than-life old-age pensioner, Sandy Thomas, drinks or refers to alcohol in 32% of his scenes, pouring whisky from a flask and knocking it back, and turning up as the doors to the Woolpack open declaring “My drink awaits!”  In two separate episodes, Sandy drinks whisky in his den in front of impressionable teenager, Sean Spencer.

Meanwhile, Woolpack’s chef, Marlon Dingle, promises to “load Sandy’s birthday cake with as much brandy as possible.”


Coronation Street

Sean Tully

Corrie’s camp machinist, Sean Tully, can be seen propping up the bar in half of all the scenes he’s featured in.  He’s either nursing a pint, or dramatically declaring “I need a drink!” before ordering a large vodka.


Paul Kershaw

Fireman Paul Kershaw, the love interest of Eileen Grimshaw, comes fourth in the characters with the most examples of alcohol.  Paul is drinking in over a third (35%) of the scenes he appears in, far from the healthy, fit impression his adoring girlfriend, Eileen, has of him. 


Jason Grimshaw

Strapping builder, Jason Grimshaw drinks, either a pint or a spirit in over a third (34%) of all of his scenes, making him the fifth worst offender for the amount of alcohol consumed.  Jason is seen eating out, or reserving a table, at the local gastro diner, the Bistro, on three occasions over the two-week period.


Fiz Stape

Loveable seamstress, Fiz Stape, is the healthiest character across all the soaps, eating or referring to healthy foods in 15% of all the scenes she’s in.  Fiz offers to make her baby brother, Chesney, some soup, which is a healthy alternative to some of the unhealthy food served up at Roy’s Rolls.  In one episode, Fiz also comments that the skin of a baked potato is the “best bit” – a positive message about diet and health.     

 

Hollyoaks


Jacqui McQueen

Jacqui is the forth worst-offending soap character in the unhealthy stakes, referring to or drinking alcohol in 30% of her scenes, and eating unhealthily in 17%.  In one episode, Jacqui steals a bottle of wine from local shop, Price Slice, and is seen swigging the bottle with friends, while tucking into a basket of muffins.  Jacqui, redeems herself slightly by drinking orange juice twice - the only character in the top 10 unhealthiest characters to eat or drink something healthy.


Nate Tenbury-Newent

The charming, secret millionaire, Nate Tenbury-Newent, drinks or refers alcohol in 27% of his scenes, and eats unhealthily in the same number.  In one episode, Nate entertains his mother and eat cakes all afternoon, before Nate picks up a bag of chips on his way home, and shares it with his fiancé. 


Ash Kane

Hollyoak’s young party girl, Ash Kane, is the forth unhealthiest eater in all the soaps.  Ash eats or refers to unhealthy food in 22% of her scenes - ordering a jam bagel at the local deli, tucking into Will’s full English breakfast, and raving about getting a takeaway. 


Theresa McQueen

Teenage mum and blonde bombshell, Theresa McQueen, is fifth in the unhealthy eating stakes, referring to eating unhealthy food in 21% of all her scenes.  Theresa polishes off a takeaway in one episode, although she is seen going to the gym a couple of episodes later.  Although she’s one of the top five unhealthiest eaters, Theresa is the only character over the two-week period to undertake physical exercise.

 

EastEnders


Arthur “Fatboy” Chubb

True to his namesake, “Fatboy” has the unhealthiest diet in soapland, referring to eating unhealthy food in 22% of his scenes.  Arthur’s either tucking into cake with Dot Branning, or cooking up a “Fatboy Special”, a peanut butter and jam sandwich for his girlfriend, Poppy – romantic! 


Patrick Trueman

West Indian charmer, Patrick Trueman, is in his 70’s and refuses to grow old gracefully.  After suffering a fall and injuring his arm and leg, Patrick is recuperating during the two-week period studied.  This, however, doesn’t stop him living an irresponsible lifestyle, getting drunk in the afternoon with bad influence, Ian Beale, and reminiscing about his father, who died at 93 years old with a bottle of rum in his hand.  He recalls how his father always said “nothing a couple of shots of rum wouldn’t cure.”

 

Character rankings

Top 10 overall unhealthy characters:


Total of unhealthy drink (alcohol and sugary drinks) + unhealthy food referred to or consumed by:

Name Soap
1 Eric Pollard Emmerdale
2 Val Pollard Emmerdale
3 Shaun Tully Coronation Street
4 Jackie McQueen Hollyoaks
5 Nate Tenbury-Newent Hollyoaks
6 Jack Branning EastEnders
7 Cheryl Brady Hollyoaks
8 Ruby Button Hollyoaks
9 Jason Grimshaw Coronation Street
10 Theresa McQueen Hollyoaks



Most amount of alcohol referred to or consumed by:

Name Soap
1 Eric Pollard Emmerdale
2 Shaun Tully Coronation Street
3 Val Pollard Emmerdale
4 Paul Kershaw Coronation Street
5 Jason Grimshaw Coronation Street
6 Sandy Thomas Emmerdale
7 Jackie McQueen Hollyoaks
8 Kat Slater EastEnders
9 Ashley Thomas Emmerdale
10 Jack Branning EastEnders



Most amount of unhealthy eating referred to or consumed by:

Name Soap
1 Arthur “Fatboy” Chubb EastEnders
2 Cheryl Brady Hollyoaks
3 Ash Kane Hollyoaks
4 Theresa McQueen Hollyoaks
5 Nate Tenbury-Newent Hollyoaks
6 Tina McIntyre Coronation Street
7 Dan Spencer Emmerdale
8 Jackie McQueen Hollyoaks
9 Kerry Wyatt Emmerdale
10 Patrick Trueman EastEnders



Most amount of healthy food referred to or consumed by:

Name Soap
1 Fiz Stape Coronation Street
2 Poppy Meadow EastEnders
3 Sunita Alahan Coronation Street
4 Faye Windass Coronation Street
5 Chesney Brown Coronation Street
6 Patrick Trueman EastEnders
7 Arthur “Fatboy” Chubb EastEnders
8 Cain Dingle Emmerdale
9 Diane O’Connor Hollyoaks
10 Anna Windass Coronation Street


Most amount of exercise referred to or undertaken by: 

The amount of exercise undertaken by characters is negligible - total examples of exercise undertaken by characters are:

  • Dev Alahan’s children (Coronation Street) have been swimming once
  • Bob Hope’s twins (Emmerdale) have played on the swings once
  • Theresa McQueen (Hollyoaks) has been to the gym once
  • Tim Metcalfe (Coronation Street) talks about playing football once
  • Eileen Grimshaw (Coronation Street) talks about Paul undertaking a keep fit regime once

 

Assumptions made while undertaking the study: 

  • If characters are visibly hungover, or make reference to drinking last night, that is counted as an example of alcohol
  • If a character is talking about alcohol then it’s counted as an example of alcohol
  • When a character is drinking a fizzy drink, it’s considered a sugary drink unless the character states differently
  • If a character offers another a cup of tea or coffee, they are both put down for caffeine
  • When a character is asked whether they want brown sauce on their butty, it’s assumed they have a bacon or sausage butty
  • When a character talks about unhealthy food, that counts as an example of unhealthy eating