Food for Thought—Eating and Television

Thankfully the TV dinner is disappearing—at least in the area of the world where I live. I have mixed memories about sitting with the little tin foil tray balanced on my knee while watching The Beverly Hillbillies. I say mixed because it was fun being entertained during dinner, however the food left something to be desired. Cardboard beef and sawdust potatoes were barely palatable. Good thing there was a little mound of chocolate whatever in the upper center of the tray.

Those "TV Dinners" were a marketing response to a fast growing American behavior—eating food while watching television. And while we may not be eating from those compartmentalized containers anymore, there is no denying that food and television have become a tightly knit combination. Just check under the cushions of that comfy sofa in front of your screen, and you’ll find a sampling of last week’s snack menu.

While studies about this entertainment/food combo have been done over the years, recently two researchers revisited this decades-old tradition and found some surprising results when they specifically looked at the behaviors of children.

Lori Francis and Leann Birch are researchers at Penn State University. In Spring 2006, they released the results of their study that examines whether eating while watching television does harm to children.

They went into their research with some known results of earlier studies that have shown adults who eat while watching TV are more likely to be obese and children who simply have high TV diets are also more likely to have higher body weights.

Francis and Birch selected 24 children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. The kids had well educated mothers in their mid-30s and the families had incomes of over $50,000. The kids in the study viewed an average of an hour and a half of TV per day, according to their mothers.

The pair of researchers watched these little ones for six weeks. Half of the observations were done while the kids watched TV, the other half of the time they observed the children doing other things. In both situations, they provided the kids with snacks or lunch. When they did watch television, they viewed a cartoon that had nothing to do with food.

Surprisingly, kids watching TV don’t always eat more food. When provided with a nutritious lunch, the kids who viewed the average hour-and-a-half or less, ate only about half of what they did when they were provided a meal without the distraction of the television. When it came to snack food, they ate only slightly less with the TV on—yet even with the more appealing munchies, they still chose to cut back on food intake while viewing television.

But the concerning observation was within the group who viewed more than the average of 1.5 hours per day. These children exhibited very different eating habits, and consistently ate more food while watching television than they did when the entertainment machine was turned off.

The possible explanation, according to the researchers, appears to be that television interferes with our body’s ability to tell us when we are full, or at least we become less sensitive to the signal that says, "I’ve had enough food!" Extending this conclusion further, Francis wonders if their research may have uncovered a new relationship between being a TV addict and childhood obesity. She questions, "Is it because of the lack of physical activity or because of their intake?"

Parents of kids who are heavy TV viewers may want to take some steps to make sure their kid’s TV habits aren’t doing double damage. Provide allotted portions of the most nutritious snacks. I’ve found if I put out pre-peeled carrots for my kids, they will eat them just as fast as potato chips, and it still satisfies their need to be munching while viewing.

Of course the best solution, which is reaffirmed in this study, is to put your family on a TV diet, and bring their viewing time under the hour and a half per day level. That’s still plenty of time for your children to get their allotted "TV dinner" fix for the day.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…