Watching TV While You Eat Could Be Contributing to Weight Gain

We may not like to admit it, but many of us watch TV, look at our phones, and use our tablets during meals. New research indicates that might not be a good idea if you want to avoid weight gain.

We’ve come a long way from the days of frozen TV dinners—at least in terms of the quality of food. But the TV part, that hasn’t changed as much. Screen time, whether television, phone, tablet, or video game, is still a common part of mealtime for many of us. But new research indicates there's good reason to nix it.

Couple sitting on living room floor, leaning on the couch, eating spaghetti, watching TV
Image courtesy of Getty.

The scientific journal Obesity recently reported on a study that looks at the effects of screen time during mealtime and calories consumed. How does consuming media change the way we eat? That's what Robin Tucker, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University, set out to learn. She conducted a survey of 55 people over three days to find out exactly what they ate, and what they did while eating.

“What we report in this study is that people who had a meal and engaged with media ate more, roughly 150 calories more than they ate when they consumed a meal without media, and they failed to compensate at the following meal,” Tucker says. That media included several different types: Tucker says most of the screen time was “audio-visual in nature,” meaning watching television shows and movies. But there were other media options as well: internet browsing popped up, as did audio-only media like listening to podcasts, audiobooks, or the radio. (Reading physical books only appeared twice.)

While 150 calories may not seem that significant, let's put it in context. If you ate one meal with media each day, that's an excess of 54,750 calories in year. Using the formula that it requires burning 3,500 calories to lose one pound (and no, the math is never this straightforward), that equates to over a 15 pound weight gain in one year. That 150 calories can have big impacts!

The responses for this study came in the form of self-reported surveys, which, as Tucker herself says, are unreliable, though she removed any self-reports that showed a caloric intake that seemed too low. Even so, the study showed that 24.7 percent of the subjects consumed some form of media during “main meals,” especially dinner.

During those meals, subjects reported eating more: more fat, more protein, more calories. “We observed that people just ate more of everything; they weren’t eating more carbs or more fat. Just eating more,” says Tucker. Though the study was small and relied on self-reported data, it supports previous research on distracted eating. “I think it largely confirms and extends what we know about eating with distractions."

Luckily, there are solutions. The obvious solution is to avoid screen time while eating. By focusing on your meal, you'll better concentrate on the way you’re eating and even what you're eating. Distractions in the form of videos and other entertainment often lead you to eat mindlessly—a mistake, given many studies showing slow, mindful eating is associated with healthier meal patterns. Plus, we all use Netflix and DVRs now anyway, so that TV show or movie will still be there after dinner. So hit pause and savor dinner without distractions.

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