Watching Television While Eating

Television viewing accounts for a significant portion of daily life in today's world.  Almost every home has a television set.  For example, in Brazil, more families own television sets than refrigerators.  We wake up in the morning and we turn on the television set while we go about washing up, eating breaking, getting dressed and then we go off to work.  We return home in the evening and we turn on the television set.  We eat dinner while we watch the television.  Then we spent the rest of the evening watching more television.  We get into bed and we watch television until we fall asleep.  There goes another day of our life, never to be gotten back again.

Of course, in a free world, a person is entitled to spend his/her time as he/she sees fit.  But what is at issue is whether or not this particular activity is beneficial to the mental and physical well-being.  Of the many criticisms launched against television, one significant line of attack is the interference of television with eating habits.  In the following, we extracted four sample articles along this line.

TV Eating Up Family Mealtime  By Joan Carter, Texas Medical Center News

"We know there's a link between the number of hours children spend watching television and weight problems," Dr. Cullen said. "People who watch television while eating also tend to be unaware of how much they eat, which encourages overeating."

Nutritionists are concerned that "TV Dinner" kids might tune out their natural hunger and satiety cues. They also point to research that suggests children tend to request food products that are more frequently advertised on television. Most of these products happen to be those that are low in nutritional value.

"Food commercials often suggest the use of food for purposes like fun or image, rather than to satisfy hunger or be healthy, and seldom show how the advertised food fits into a healthy diet," Dr. Cullen said.

Families that tune into television instead of each other at mealtime also miss important opportunities to talk and connect.

"Parents' table talk can help children to understand their families," Dr. Cullen said. "Positive family mealtime conversations can also build children's self-esteem and foster positive relationships that help children and parents talk through tough issues when they arise."

Research suggests that children who eat dinner with their parents tend to eat healthier, consuming less saturated fat and more important nutrients than their unsupervised peers. Poor eating habits are linked to several chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, non-insulin dependant diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers in adulthood.

"Family meals play an important role in helping children learn good eating and life skills from their parents," Dr. Cullen said. "Parents need to turn off the television during meals and engage their children in conversation."

Many kids are eating (too much) in front of TV  By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

Kids today are giving new meaning to the idea of TV dinners: Many are watching television while chowing down their evening meal, a new study reveals. And overweight kids are more likely than normal-weight kids to eat in front of the television.

Researchers with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston surveyed 287 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders about their dinner habits for a week and found:

Children ate 42% of their dinners while watching TV.

Overweight kids ate 50% of their meals in front of the TV, compared with 35% for normal-weight children.

African-American children consumed 62% of their meals in front of the tube, compared with 43% for Hispanic children, 32% for white children and 21% for Asian-American children.

Kids who ate dinner with their families ate more vegetables and drank fewer sodas than those who ate dinner alone.

Kids who ate with their families also were more likely to eat lower-fat foods such as low-fat milk and salad dressing and lean meats than kids who ate by themselves.

The old school of thought is that dinner is a good place for sharing and talking with your kids, says nutritionist Karen Cullen of the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor. "Dinner is an opportunity for family conversation and interaction."

The downside of eating while watching TV is that a lot of times you're not aware of what you are eating, and you eat too much, she says.

And when kids are with their families at meals, they seem to make better choices in what they eat, Cullen says.

Children's nutritionist Ellyn Satter says some parents may think their kids behave better when the TV is on because it's a distraction and may keep down the fighting and conflicts at the table. Or the TV may be a distraction from the "boredom of the same old fare."

But it's better for families to sit down and have a pleasant, relaxing meal together without the television blaring. "Kids may beg to have the TV on, but in reality, their parents' time and attention is far more important," says Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.

Toddler Likes to Eat While Watching Television  By Sue Gilbert,

It really is not good nutritional practice to eat in front of television. What tends to occur are a couple of things: First, the person is so involved in the program, they fail to notice what they are eating, or how much. This makes it less likely that they will be responding to their body's cues to hunger and satiety. Someone is apt to overeat with out being aware of it because they are not paying attention and are lingering with the show. Just the opposite may occur, particularly for a youngster who has a small appetite. They may forget to eat at all in their distraction. In the long run, it prevents a person from truly enjoying their food and relishing its flavor, color, and texture. They just aren't paying attention to it. Even worse, a child who is eating in front of the television is not involved in social interaction with his family. 

Kids' TV watching linked to unhealthy eating habits By Pat Etheridge,

Children participating in the study were in 4th, 5th and 6th grades. Results show those who watched more TV were also more likely to eat without adult supervision or interaction.

"Most children this age really appreciate the time they spend with their parents and turning off the TV and tuning into our children during meals can be very positive," said Koon.

The research indicates there is no connection between the number of hours mothers work outside the home and the amount of television their children watch. But a parent's education appears to play a powerful role: Those with the least amount of schooling tend to keep the television on the most.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old interviewed during 2001 in Brazil.  When presented with the statement, "I like to have my meals while watching television," 52% of the respondents said that they either 'completely agreed' or 'somewhat agreed.'  It is certainly formidable when half of the population concurs.

The following table shows the breakdown by demographic groups.  People who watch television while they eat are more likely to be younger and lower-class.  Although television has been popularized for just over half a century, the pervasiveness of this medium is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Those under thirty years old are perhaps the first generations to be brought up with television as a constant element of their entire lives.  Family members may come and go, but the television set was always there.  If these trends persist, we expect the incidences will steadily increase as the population ages.

Demographic Group

% Completely Agree/Somewhat Agree with 
"I like to have my meals while watching television"

     Male 12-19
     Male 20-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64

     Female 12-19
     Female 20-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-64


Socio-economic Level

Marital Status
     Single/never married
     Consensual union

Total 52%

As much as  the arguments against watching television while eating are cogent, this issue has not been raised to the level of a public health menace (as is the case with tobacco smoking, for example).  After all, such behavior as television viewing and eating habits cannot be regulated by government decree.  Rather, any change would have to come from a conscientious effort on the part of the people themselves.  In the present condition, this would amount to nothing less than a cultural revolution.

(posted by Roland Soong, 9/28/2001)

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