Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

tv

(Photo: TaraPatta/Shutterstock)

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

• September 01, 2014 • 1:00 PM

(Photo: TaraPatta/Shutterstock)

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.

And the answer to America’s obesity epidemic is: We all need to watch more of Charlie Rose.

OK, that’s not precisely the conclusion of a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. But it does suggest that our choice of programming may be directly related to our girth.

It has long been established that television watching is linked to unhealthy eating. A 2011 meta-study, which examined the results of 53 previously published papers, concluded that television can “act as a distraction, resulting in a lack of awareness of actual food consumption, or overlooking food cues that may lead to overconsumption.”

OK, but do certain kinds of programs act as more effective distractions, leading to higher levels of mindless eating? That’s the issue addressed in the new study, conducted by a research team led by Aner Tal of Cornell University.

A 2011 meta-study, which examined the results of 53 previously published papers, concluded that television can “act as a distraction, resulting in a lack of awareness of actual food consumption, or overlooking food cues that may lead to overconsumption.”

Ninety-four undergraduates gathered in groups of up to 20 to watch TV for 20 minutes. Each participant was provided with “generous amounts of four snacks—M&Ms, cookies, carrots, and grapes—and allowed to eat as much as they wanted.” The food was weighed before and after the sessions to determine how much of each item was eaten.

The students were randomly assigned to watch one of three programs: An excerpt from the action movie The Island, starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson; a segment of the PBS interview program hosted by Charlie Rose; or that same excerpt from The Island, only shown without sound.

The two programs differed enormously in terms of visual stimulation: The Island averaged 24.7 camera cuts per minute, while the interview show averaged only 4.8. Sound-source fluctuation was also far higher for the film.

As the researchers suspected, participants whose eyes and ears were overwhelmed were most likely to chow down. Those who watched the film excerpt (with sound) ate nearly twice as many grams of food than those who watched Charlie Rose. They also consumed 65 percent more calories.

Even while watching the silent version of The Island, and thus receiving visual but not auditory stimulation, participants ate 36 percent more grams of food than those watching Rose, and consumed 46 percent more calories.

“The more distracting a TV show, the less attention people appear to pay to eating, and the more they eat,” the researchers conclude.

So it isn’t just that television viewing is, by definition, a sedentary habit. Or that commercials can coax us into craving unhealthy foods. Watching a fast-moving program with rapid cuts—which defines a whole lot of today’s content—leaves us largely unaware of just how much we’re stuffing into our mouths.

The obvious answer—one that should be disseminated by physicians and health educators—is that eating and television viewing should be separate activities. Unless, that is, you’re enjoying the relaxed rhythms of a public television interview show.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.