Why does TV-watching appear to increase our risk of being overweight?

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I don’t think for a moment that I’ve got my whole life sussed, and see it as a ‘work in progress’. I’ve been putting energy into my personal development and health management for 20-odd years now, and to this day still strive to lead a better, healthier, happier more balanced life. One of the most contemporary adjustments I made was to give up watching TV (other than for rugby matches). It’s difficult to describe how much I have gained by ‘losing’ television. In particular, I’ve got more time, feel less stressed, and sleep better as a result. I wrote about this, and the benefits weaning myself off my TV ‘habit’ brought here.

Another reason for not watching too much TV is that it’s associated with worth health outcomes. In particular, TV watching has been quite closely linked with an increased risk of excess weight/obesity. There has been some debate about whether this association is due to a tendency for people to snack in front of the TV, or reduced activity, or both (or perhaps other factors). I was therefore interested to read a recently published study which attempted to dissect a little what it is about TV-viewing that appears to up one’s risk of putting on weight.

This study, which appears in this months edition of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined the relationship between television viewing and weight (as assessed via waist circumference) in young adults aged 26-36 [1]. In this study, individuals were assessed for a number of factors including (in addition to waist size) TV viewing time, frequency of food and drink consumption during TV viewing and physical activity levels during leisure time.

As expected, the researchers found that watching more television was associated with more in the way of waist circumference too. In particular, they found that women watching 3 or more hours of TV a day had a 89 per cent increased risk of severe abdominal obesity compared to those watching 1 hour of TV a day or less. Also, men watching 3 or more hours of TV a day were more than twice as likely to have moderate abdominal obesity compared to those watching 1 hour of TV a day or less.

Further analysis revealed that differences in leisure time activity has very little bearing on these findings. This, in my view, is not particularly surprising seeing as the evidence suggests that activity levels have relatively small influence over body weight.

Food intake during TV viewing did, however, appear to be a significant factor in the association between TV viewing and waist circumference. It did not explain all of the association, however, which suggests that other factors are at play.

So, one explanation here is that TV viewing time is a ‘marker’ for the ‘healthiness’ of someone’s life. So, it’s possible that individuals who watch less TV also, say, eat generally more healthily too. We can only speculate.

What I’d like to focus more on here is the apparent association between TV viewing and a tendency for surplus eating. One major problem here is the foods we tend to snack on while box-watching usually leave a lot to be desired from a nutritional perspective. Crappy carbs (e.g. potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, pop corn) are the order of the day here, usually. Many of these tend not to sate the appetite particularly well (which is one of the reasons some can eat enough popcorn to fill a bucket the size of their head without knowing it�), and other can be extremely ‘moreish’ (e.g. Pringles ” once you pop, you can’t stop).

Another issue is that the TV is a portal for advertisements for usually quite rubbishy foods. The influence of such adverts, even unconsciously, will not tend to encourage healthy eating, I reckon.

However, another factor here that I think has considerable relevance is the issue of ‘mindless eating’. This is, in essence, eating that we’re not really aware of (often, even when we’re not hungry). I’ve been a bit more aware of this concept recently having read a book dedicated to the subject by American psychologist Dr Brian Wansink. This witty and easy-to-read book details a myriad of influences that can lead to individuals eating more than they need to. I heartily recommend it to those of you who believe this issue may have a relevance to you or someone you know. More about this book can be found here:


1. Cleland VJ, et al. Television viewing and abdominal obesity in young adults: is the association mediated by food and beverage consumption during viewing time or reduced leisure-time physical activity? Am J Clin Nutr 2008 87: 1148-1155

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