Binge-watching is the thing these days, especially since many are stuck in their homes because of the global pandemic. Recent research, however, suggests that binge-watching affects our lives in more ways than we think. Particularly, in the way we eat.
Indeed, interest among researchers about the link between watching television and eating go way before the dawn of Netflix. And, unfortunately, the data from those years of research implies our health will, to a huge degree, be taking a hit.
Lilian Cheung, author of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, says that the evidence we have so far strongly correlate binge-watching to weight gain and obesity. That is to say, the more investment people put to binge-watching, the more overweight they’ll tend to be.
Cheung says that one reason for this is because TV watching promotes inactivity. Another reason is that TV viewers are often inundated with ads that advance bad dietary habits and practices. Yet another reason, Cheung says, is the fact that the period of inactivity during TV watching is often seen as an opportunity for snacking.
To make matters worse, the data from the study also links type 2 diabetes and higher rates of depression to binge-watching.
Temple Northup, an associate professor at the University of Houston, who’s credits include a study about the relationship between eating and television watching, concluded that the two were so strongly correlated and that it’s almost certain that television watching promotes unhealthy eating. In his study, which was published in the January 2015 issue of The International Journal of Communication and Health, Northup surveyed the eating habits of 591 undergraduate students and found that his data, which showed that the students surveyed who were more likely to watch television were also more likely to eat unhealthily, had, to a huge degree, mirrored data from previous studies. The conclusion Northup reached was the same as Cheung’s; and it is that television watching encourages eating.
Previous research suggests that mindless eating—i.e., eating while distracted—changes the way we eat in general. Typically, our brains send us satiety cues while we’re eating to let us know when we’re full. But television watching can often distract people from these cues and make them continue gorging despite being full.
The overall time spent on watching is one factor that predicts snacking behavior, but interestingly enough, the show that one’s watching—or the genre it belongs to—seems to have some degree of effect, too. Indeed, Researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that action-packed television shows seemed to promote twice as much snacking as other genres do. Conversely, somber and depressing television content was found to encourage 55% more snacking than their cheerful counterparts.
Researchers have surmised that the fast-paced nature of action-packed shows could be subliminally encouraging snackers to keep up through their snacking. While others have speculated that the increased levels of cortisol that result from viewing stressful shows promote overeating. We know from previous studies, after all, that cortisol leads to overeating.
When it comes to somber and depressing shows, researchers have speculated that the increased levels of snacking seem no different from emotional eating, where food is meant to provide temporary respite from the sadness. This, they say, might explain why people, to some degree, eat more when watching sad shows than when watching upbeat ones.
Apparently, what we see onscreen, independent of genre, has an effect on our eating habits, too. Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab also found that shows that feature food makes people eat more than shows that don’t. Indeed, in their study, a group of people was made to watch a SpongeBob Square Pants episode that involved chocolate bars, and another group was made to watch an episode that wasn’t food-related. The results that came out showed that the people who watched the episode with the chocolate bars tended to eat more than the other group.
Of course, Cheung says that she’s not suggesting that people cut their credit cards or cancel their Netflix subscriptions. She says that people merely have to separate eating and television watching. Cheung suggests that people unplug their TVs while eating or refrain from eating while watching TV.
In other words, Cheung says that the best way to reduce mindless eating is by practicing mindful eating. She says that by removing distractions while eating and focusing on the food, the satiety cues that our brain sends out won’t be drowned out by other, external stimuli, overall reducing the likelihood of overeating.
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