Is television making us fat? An increasing amount of research shows an association between TV viewing and higher food consumption and a more sedentary lifestyle. Now, a new Cornell University study points out that not all TV is alike. Read a summary of the study plus an interview with its lead author, Dr. Aner Tal.
Some TV programs might lead people to eat twice as much as other programs! “We find that if you’re watching an action movie while snacking your mouth will see more action too!” says Aner Tal, Ph.D. lead author on the new article just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine. “In other words, the more distracting the program is the more you will eat.”
In the study, conducted by researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, 94 undergraduates snacked on M&Ms, cookies, carrots and grapes while watching 20 minutes of television programming. A third of the participants watched a segment of the action movie The Island, a third watched a segment from the talk show, the Charlie Rose Show, and a third watched the same segment from The Island without sound.
“People who were watching The Island ate almost twice as many snacks – 98% more than those watching the talk show!” says co-author Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design (forthcoming) and Professor and Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “Even those watching “The Island” without sound ate 36% more.” People watching the more distracting content also consumed more calories, with 354 calories consumed by those watching The Island (314 calories with no sound) compared to 215 calories consumed by those watching the Charlie Rose Show.
“More stimulating programs that are fast paced, include many camera cuts, really draw you in and distract you from what you are eating. They can make you eat more because you're paying less attention to how much you are putting in your mouth,” explains Tal. Because of this, programs that engage viewers more might wind up being worse for their diets!
So what can you do to avoid overeating during your favorite chase scene? The researchers suggest pre-plating or pre-portioning your TV snacks instead of bringing out a whole bag of chips or box of cookies. Wansink notes that the best solution is to bring out the healthy munchable snacks, like carrots. “The good news,” says Wansink “is that action movie watchers also eat more healthy foods, if that’s what’s in front of them. Take advantage of this!”
Wondering about current research on eating and viewing? Dr. Aner Tal (PhD Consumer Behavior 2009 Duke University, MBA 2002 Tel-Aviv University), the lead author of the study, gave us a stimulating short interview which touches on some further aspects of the subject.
SJ: As it is stated in the study summary, there is a growing amount of research about the association between TV viewing and eating patterns. Is this the first study that tries to investigate the influence of different kinds of TV content?
AT: It was to the best of our knowledge. An article published around the same time also examines this issue, finding that programs that are too boring actually get you to eat more as well compared to more engaging content. Which hints at a complex pattern – if something is too boring you eat more (our less engaging show was somewhat interesting), but if it’s too exciting (running! Explosions!) you eat more. Although more research is needed to be sure of the pattern, and there are important methodological differences between our study and theirs (sample composition and size mainly). In theory it might be that if something is too engaging you wind up eating less as well because you go into a TV zombie coma and stop eating.
SJ: The study compares the effects of an action movie and a talk show on eating. Are there any plans or thoughts to extend this kind of research to other kinds of programs as well, such as sports, comedies, dramas, etc?
AT: Yes, most definitely. We’re interested in following up with a greater range of programming to try to pin down what it is exactly that leads people to eat with particular shows – is it objective charactersitics of the show? People’s subjective levels of interest?
SJ: Could the context or setting also influence how much one eats? For instance, watching a movie on TV at home or watching it in a movie theater, watching alone or in the company of others, and so on?
AT: Yes, or at least we think so. This is because the context also influences your level of engagement. Others who raptly pay attention to a TV program may lead you to pay closer attention. An exciting environment might be more stimulating and encourage faster consumption. And seeing a movie on the big screen might draw you in more than watching it on a small screen, particularly with high impact content like that in action movies.
SJ: Could the kind of snack people consume play any role on how much they eat? Apart from the fact that some snacks are healthier than others, is it also possible that certain snacks tend to be more conducive to overeating than others?
AT: Possibly, although we do not see evidence for that. In our studies people ate more of all the foods that were in front of them with the more engaging content. There are characteristics of food that may make it more amenable to mindless eating, for instance how easy it is to eat (does it require peeling, cutting, etc., or can it be eaten as is). It may also be that if a snack is particularly well liked or disliked that affects how much more of it is mindlessly eaten, although as I said, we currently don’t have evidence for that.
SJ: Preferring healthier snacks like carrots is proposed as the best solution to the problem of overeating. Would it also be advisable for places like movie theaters to offer such healthier options to their customers?
AT: Well, not necessarily preferring but serving yourself those when you’re distracted and know you’re likely to engage in mindless eating. And yes, availability of healthier options in movie theatres and other such establishments (for instance sports arenas, music shows) would be a very very good idea on numerous fronts. Having healthy alternatives available makes will increase the healthiness of what people eat. If I want a snack and there’s nothing healthy there I’m going to eat something that’s not necessarily great for me. If there is a healthy (and ideally appetizing) alternative some people would opt for that.
Aner Tal (PhD Consumer Behavior 2009 Duke University, MBA 2002 Tel-Aviv University) is a research associate in the Food and Brand Lab. His main research interests are food choice, judgment and consumption, rationalization, and hedonic experience. Outside the lab Aner is an avid reader and film aficionado, an acro yoga addict, photographer and amateur improviser. One day he would like to know how to cook and juggle fire without burning himself in the process.
Summary by Aner Tal, PhD. Food & Brand Lab, Cornell University. URL:
http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/OP/watch-what-you-eat Source: Aner Tal, Scott Zuckerman and Brian Wansink. (2014). Watch What You Eat: TV Content Influences Consumption. Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine.
Interview with Dr. Aner Tal by Symposion Journal. Copyright: Symposion Journal, a trading name of Cognea Ltd. May not be reprinted without permission.