Most of us enjoy cozying up in front of the television and watching our favorite shows or a movie. But how often do you find yourself reaching for the popcorn or chips at the same time? According to a new study, the more hours we spend in front of the TV, the more likely we are to snack on junk food.
The research, conducted by Prof. Temple Northup of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, TX, is published in The International Journal of Communication and Health.
This is not the first study to associate TV use with unhealthy eating. A 2014 study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, for example, linked television viewing time to unhealthy dietary patterns among children aged 9-11.
In that study and others reporting similar findings, researchers say the results may be explained by the fact that TV watching is a sedentary activity, and that this encourages unhealthy eating.
But in his study, Prof. Northup sought to determine the psychological explanations for the link between TV use and increasing consumption of unhealthy foods.
"There was very little prior research on the psychological reasons this relationship might exist beyond that it's a sedentary activity that encourages snacking," he says. "I wanted to investigate underlying psychological reasons that this relationship might exist."
To reach his findings, Prof. Northup conducted a cross-sectional survey on 591 participants of an average age of 22.
The survey was designed to gather information on participants' overall television and news media usage and their nutritional knowledge. In addition, Prof. Northup assessed their "fatalistic views" toward eating healthily, which he told Medical News Today is "a general viewpoint that measures the extent to which you think you understand proper nutrition."
High TV usage linked to poorer knowledge and more fatalistic views of nutrition
Overall, the results of the survey revealed that the more time participants spent watching TV, the more likely they were to have an unhealthy diet.
What is more, those who watched more TV had a poorer understanding of nutrition and a more fatalistic view toward healthy eating, compared with participants who watched less TV. "In turn, those two items predicted snacking behaviors," says Prof. Northup.
He believes the lack of nutritional knowledge among people who watch more TV may be explained by increased exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods.
"Within advertising, most foods are nutritionally deficient, while entertainment programming depicts characters frequently snacking on unhealthy foods and rarely eating a balanced meal," he explains. "If these are the messages, those who watch a lot of them may become less able to determine what is healthy."
He notes that, interestingly, participants who watched a lot of television news but not a lot of television overall had better nutritional knowledge than those who watched more general TV. Prof. Northup told MNT that this may be because news media "typically focus their stories on trending topics - like what diet is best or what foods are healthy or unhealthy - rather than a broader context of healthy living."
Viewers presented with conflicting messages about food
On considering the association between high TV usage and more fatalistic views toward nutrition, Prof. Northup says the link is not surprising given that viewers are presented with conflicting messages about food.
"After all, on the one hand, heavy users are told to eat a lot of sugary drinks and snacks, while on the other, they are told to avoid those snacks in favor of a variety of other foods," he explains. "If all messages being presented conflict, it becomes hard to decipher exactly what should be followed. This could lead to the belief that it is just not possible to fully understand nutrition."
Obesity is a major problem in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of adults in the US are obese, while the rate of obesity among children and adolescents has quadrupled over the past 30 years.
Prof. Northup says his study results suggest the media is contributing to obesity:
"Based on these results, the media may be one piece of the obesity problem by sending messages to consumers that create fatalistic attitudes toward eating healthy as well as lowering overall nutritional knowledge.
These two variables in turn contribute to poor nutritional eating - a well-established cause of obesity."
But there is something we can do that may stop us reaching for the junk food while watching TV: reduce the amount of unhealthy snacks in the house.
"If you know you're prone to eating while watching TV, then it would be best to not have a lot of snacks like chips in the house, and instead have things like carrot sticks," Prof. Northup told MNT.
Obesity may not be the only problem mediated by high TV usage. Last year, MNT reported on a study claiming the more time infants and younger children spend watching TV, the less time they spend asleep.