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Why you eat more while watching TV
Several years ago I reported on two studies that showed that both adults and children tend to eat more when they are distracted, whether by music or television. While there are several other studies supporting the conclusion that people do eat more while watching television, the question remains as to exactly why.
Is It a Meal, or Is It a Snack?
I get questions about snacking all the time: "What should I have for snacks?" or "Is this a healthy snack?" While I've written essays about what to snack on, people do seem to have trouble with their snacking. What is the difference between a meal and a snack?
Parents' portions, kids' portions
Back in 2012 I shared with you a study that showed that when preschoolers are presented with larger servings, they tend to eat more. On that occasion I pointed out that parents who were trying to get their children to eat more vegetables could make that work for them by serving larger portions of vegetables at mealtimes.
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I've written before about how distracted eating can lead to eating more, with the researched distractions ranging from music to television and showing that kids aren't immune from this phenomenon, either. Nor do people compensate for that extra consumption later by eating less at a subsequent meal.
The news that other forms of media, now including browsing the Internet and listening to podcasts, has similar effects should come as no surprise.
Researchers at Michigan State University, along with colleagues at the University of Georgia, trained 55 men and women to record their daily media use in detail, including the time of day and duration, program title, and media type (Obesity 2019;27:1418-1422).
The participants received training in keeping detailed daily food diaries, which they kept for a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, returning both the food diaries as well as their media use diaries at the end of the week.
For their analysis the authors designated certain times of day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with food consumed in between the meals or after dinner as "snacks." Thus they could assess the number of calories each participant consumed during those six possible eating occasions and correlate the eating occasions with whether the participant was using media at that time.
It's interesting to me to note how little the participants reported snacking (eating between mealtimes). For the 55 participants there were a total number of possible eating occasions of 990. However, they only ate on 744 occasions, meaning the participants snacked only 1.5 times per day, on average.
Even more interesting was how little they used media while eating: only 133 of those 744 eating occasions (17.9%) were "media meals", with most of the media (120 of the 133 occasions) being used during the three main meals of the day.
When people were using media while they ate, about 88% of the time they were still watching something like television, movies, or online videos. Listening to radio, podcasts, or audiobooks took up 11% of the media use, with browsing the Internet coming in far behind at just under 1%.
More importantly, the authors found that on average, the participants consumed about 150 more calories when they were eating and using media as opposed to not using media, even when they took into account whether that eating occasion was a meal like breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or a between-meal snack.
Ordinarily people who eat a little more at one meal will compensate for that greater amount by eating less at the next meal but the participants here did not - the amount consumed at a meal following a media-using meal averaged the same as a meal following a non-media-using meal.
I would have liked for this study to be of longer duration (recall this was just three days of tracking for 55 people) and for the authors to have tracked what type of device was being used: smart phones? iPads or similar products? Laptops or desktop computers or televisions? I noticed also that the authors' definition of "media" didn't seem to include reading, whether on a tablet or from a printed page.
It's encouraging that so little media was being used while eating in general, but when people were using media and eating, it was during standard mealtimes, suggesting to me people who were eating alone - or at least acting as if they were alone.
While in some ways this study raises more questions than it answers, at least to my mind, it does support the idea that paying more attention to what you're eating - being more present, if you will - will help you avoid mindless overeating. Those 150 extra calories at a few eating occasions a week may seem small but in the long run will add up to extra pounds you don't want.
First posted: October 23, 2019