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Why Eating While Watching Television Can Make You Gain Weight, and How to Stop It

February 12, 2020
Why Eating While Watching TV Can Make You Gain Weight - Lark Health

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Are you guilty of this habit? After a long day of work, you find yourself turning on the TV and settling down with your dinner. Eating while watching TV is actually affecting you in more ways than you may realize.

Evidence is strong that people who watch more television are more likely to be overweight. That is something to be aware of if you are trying to lose weight or are worried about your current or future health. There are many reasons why TV watching and other screen time, such as using smartphones and tablets, may lead to weight gain. 

There are just as many ways to stop it from happening to you - or stop it from continuing if it is already happening. Lark can help raise awareness of your habits and also support you in developing new habits to get out of the habit of eating unhealthily while watching television.

Why Television Leads to Weight Gain

watching TV & eating

There are many reasons why watching television and other screens, such as smartphones and tablets, increase risk of weight gain. These are a few of them.

People Eat While Watching TV

Eating at the screen is ingrained in our culture. From movie theater snacks to sports watching parties to TV dinners, the habit of eating while sitting in front of a screen can form at an early age. These are not likely to be healthy foods, with common examples including:

  • buttered popcorn at the movies
  • pizza and wings while watching the Super Bowl
  • chips or cereal while sitting down for some evening entertainment.

Diets tend to become higher-calorie and less nutritious when the television is on during meals. This may be because foods served on these occasions may be less nutritious, such as frozen dinners or restaurant delivery.

Another possibility is that you may eat more while watching television or playing video games than you might if you were doing something else or were solely eating.

TV Ads Show Less-Healthy Foods

Think about the food commercials you have seen recently on television. The majority of them were probably for processed or fast foods that are not terribly nutritious. Common foods advertised on TV include:

  • Candy: Snickers, M&Ms, and Reese's
  • Chips
  • Crackers
  • Boxed or frozen meals: macaroni and cheese or pizza.
  • Fast food: Burgers, usually oversized or with bacon, cheese, or another high-calorie "extra"
  • Fried chicken
  • Nachos

All these foods are considered calorie-dense, which means they have a lot of calories in a small serving. If you eat the way television commercials are trying to convince you to eat, you are likely to get more calories, sugar, fat, and sodium than you need, and less fiber and other nutrients than you should get for optimal health. 

TV Ad-Makers Know How to Reach YOU

Marketers are clever. They know how to reach their audience. Food ads in children's programming may promote sugary cereals, fast food meals with a toy, and snacks with recognizable mascots or labels.

What about the rest of us? Chances are that there are a few commercials for YOU. For example, are you a:

  • Mom who is concerned that her children are not eating enough? Enter irresistible (and sugar-packed) chocolate hazelnut spread.
  • Overwhelmed dad in charge of dinner? Enter (starchy, fatty) mac and cheese.
  • Working parent? Enter a takeout offer for a bucket of fried chicken and mashed potatoes to take home to the family for dinner.
  • Stressed woman? Enter (sugar-laden, calorie-dense) chocolate caramels.

Online ads and ads you see while using your smartphone are far more personalized. Marketers may have information about you based on your internet and social media usage, and the ads you see are often chosen specifically for you.

Watching TV Does Not Burn Many Calories

Watching television barely burns more calories than sleeping. An 80-kg person burns about 100 calories an hour watching television. In comparison, in an hour, an 80-kg person burns about 400 calories from bicycling, 640 calories jogging at 5 mph, or 320 calories walking briskly. In fact, you burn more calories than watching television by doing almost anything, whether washing dishes, doing the laundry, or rearranging your closet or kitchen drawers.

The point is that the time you are spending watching television is time that you are not spending doing other things that burns more calories. The same is true for when you are sitting on a couch or lying down on a bed while scrolling through your notifications or posting on social media. That lack of calorie expenditure can lead to weight gain.

How to Avoid Weight Gain from TV Time

Screen Time

Being aware of screen time, food ads, choices, and strategizing about what to eat and how to spend your time, can help fight weight gain linked to screen time.

Cut Back on Screen Time

Cutting back on screen time gives you less of a chance to eat while watching TV, playing video games, or using your tablet or smartphone. A good first step is to note exactly how much screen time is in your typical day, since it may be more than you think. Once you know when your screen time is occurring and how much there is, you can try to plan alternative activities for those times. For example, if you normally watch an hour of TV after dinner, you could cut back to 30 minutes of TV and 30 minutes of reading, taking a walk, cleaning the house, making tomorrow's breakfast and lunch, or pretty much anything else!

By the way, there does not seem to be a link between time spent working at a computer and obesity, so we cannot suggest that you use "weight gain" as an excuse to quit your job! (Still, eating at the desk may be stressful and, possibly, germy, as bacteria tend to be present in the workplace).

Increase the Quality of TV Time

There may be times when skipping the television is not an option because a favorite team is playing, a new episode is airing, or you simply need to space out. Adding a bit of movement while watching television can change the sedentary experience into an active one. These are some options.

  • During commercial breaks, march in place, do squats, lunges, calf raises, push-ups, arm swings, and anything else you can think of.
  • Invest in a treadmill, stationary bike, or pedal pusher, and keep moving while you are watching.

Enjoy Your Food More

Eating while distracted, such as while playing video games or chatting on social media, can lead you to eat more while feeling less satisfied. Instead, focusing on your meal or snack away from the screen can keep you aware of how much you are eating, how hungry or full you feel, and how delicious your food tastes.

Keep a Food Log

Mindless munching in front of the television can add up quickly. A handful of chocolate candies , the rest of the bag of chips, and some frozen pizza snacks, plus a soda or some beer, can total over 1,000 calories: possibly over half a day's worth, while it only felt like a small snack. Even nutritious foods can be detrimental if you overdo it. A 3-ounce bag of peanuts, for example, while a source of fiber, protein, and healthy fats, has 500 calories that may take only a few minutes to consume.

The simple act of logging what you are eating while you are eating it can make something click in your brain. It can alert you which foods you are choosing and how much you are eating. You may just realize that it is not worth it.

Plan Snacks Before Sitting Down

Planning your snacks before sitting down to watch television can help keep you from eating too much or too poorly while watching. Knowing what you will eat and how much can empower you to:

  • Eat slowly, since you have only a limited amount of food to consume.
  • Enjoy what you are eating, since there is no rush to get to the next snack.
  • Select healthy snacks that will make you feel good later.
  • Watch the food commercials without wondering if you should go get a similar snack from your kitchen.

Some healthy snacks can be:

  • Baby carrots, celery sticks, or other raw vegetables.
  • Fresh fruit.
  • Grilled chicken breast strips.
  • Air-popped popcorn.

Know Why You Are Tempted

Next time you are tempted by a food ad, ask yourself what grabs you about that ad. You may discover that it is not the food itself that is calling your name, but the circumstances surrounding it. For example, a commercial for bologna (a fatty, high-sodium processed meat) may be appealing because of the promise of a happy family eating sandwiches at an outdoors picnic. Are you really craving the bologna, or the warm fuzzy feelings of family time?

Get Help

If you think your screen time may be causing weight gain or getting in the way of weight loss, Lark can help in many ways.

  • Raise awareness, as you log foods, of how much you may be eating in front of the screen.
  • Let you know how much sitting you are doing in a day.
  • Send reminders to get up and move if you have been sitting motionless for a while.
  • Track your activity so you can see if you have been sedentary or active during the day or week.
  • Suggest healthy snacks.
  • Suggest activities to help you get active instead of sitting in front of a television.

About Lark

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