Does Watching TV Make You Fat?


By Matthew Stathis, PhD

If watching television is your main pastime, you could be at risk of gaining weight and you wouldn’t be alone.  In the United States, television viewing ranks third after work and sleep as American’s most time-consuming activities. American households are watching on average about 8 hours of television a day. It is safe to say that television has become a main staple in the American household. 

Interestingly, in the last 10 years there have been more incidences of obesity than ever before in the United States. One cannot help but wonder if the television has anything to do with this trend.  TV viewing and obesity are both on the rise, but are the two trends related? Are you at risk of gaining weight by watching television?

The Relationship between Watching TV and Obesity

Current research reveals that TV viewing and obesity are definitely linked. The act of passively watching television has been implicated as one of the causes of the rise in obesity in the United States. For families that watch 6 hours or more TV in a day, their risk for obesity is significantly higher.  But they are not the only ones at risk.  Even in people who exercise regularly and watch at least 2 hours TV a day, a link with obesity has been observed.

According to the Nurses’ Health Study, conducted in 2003, there is convincing evidence that prolonged TV watching is directly related to obesity.  The study analyzed the sedentary behavior of 50,000 women aged 30 to 55 years.  For every 2-hour a day increase in time spent watching television, the risk of obesity for these women increased by 23%. Since then, multiple studies have confirmed a link between watching television and an increase in BMI (Body Mass Index, a measure of obesity) for both younger and older people.

Can TV Cause Obesity?

Studies repeatedly indicate that watching too much TV is associated with overweight and obesity. However, an association does not prove causality. Is TV to blame, or are other factors contributing to the weight gain, like an unhealthy diet or reduced physical activity, which tend to be associated with individuals who watch too much TV. Were Americans overweight before or after television invaded our lives?   This debate is the driving force behind some studies conducted regarding TV viewing and obesity.

There are several arguments that propose television viewing has a causal effect on obesity. Studies have found an association between TV and obesity even among individuals who are considered healthy and physically active.  Thus, the connection between television and obesity exists even when a person maintains a healthy diet and engages in regular exercise.  This is important because a lot of people assume that weight gain could only happen for couch potatoes whose exercise consists of walking back and forth from the couch to the refrigerator.

Although people who watch a lot of TV tend to also not be very physically active, this fact alone cannot interpret the relationship between television viewing and obesity. Susanne Higgs, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, and other scientists have suggested a number of ways through which TV watching could contribute to weight gain.

Why Television Undermines Weight Loss Efforts

The following three arguments explain how TV watching can lead to weight gain.  None of the following necessarily requires eliminating physical activities from your lifestyle.  Therefore, these mechanisms are shared by people who watch TV and who may or may not exercise regularly.

  1. 1. We Eat More When We Watch TV

People who eat while watching television tend to eat sugary, high in fat snacks.  One particular study looked at how much food 78 mostly female undergraduate students ate and how TV watching affected their eating behavior.  Participants were examined on days when they ate in front of the TV and days when the TV was off while they ate their meals.

The results revealed a trend of eating more food when the TV was on during their meal.  In fact, this additional food intake translated into one extra meal a day, which meant their total calorie intake for the day increased as well, particularly the fat and carb content. The more time the participants spent watching television the higher their overall daily energy intake.

Another study, by Dr. Bellisle and colleagues, observed the same trend.  Participants were 48 women who were served 4 lunch meals in two different settings:  one in a quiet room, and the other with the television on. The study found that the subjects ate 13.4% more calories than when they ate in front of the TV.

Why does TV viewing affect how much we eat?  One explanation is the way food is advertised on television.  Most people will be exposed to at least a dozen food and beverage commercials within a typical 1-hour TV period. Food items that are advertised and promoted are primarily foods that are extremely high in fat and sugar.

When was the last time you watched a commercial advertising steamed broccoli? Instead, you’re more likely to see commercials showing models sinking their sparkling white teeth into “delicious” hamburgers.  All these foods and the amount of times they are advertised contradict what is recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid.  Healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates are rarely advertised on television.

Another compelling reason why TV viewing is linked to obesity is because television has the effect of being very distracting, rendering it difficult to pay attention to your eating behavior.  TV diverts your attention from listening to your “internal processing food cues” and “exerting your habitual dietary restraint” as Dr. Higgs notes.

  1. 2. Television Lowers Our Metabolic Rate

Research shows that people who watch TV actually spend less energy than when they are resting. If you compared two people, one who is watching television, and the other who rests on a couch without watching TV for an entire day, the person who watched TV would be spending at least 200 fewer calories than the person who only rests. TV lowers your metabolic rate.  In fact, the energy you spend when you are watching television is almost what you would spend if you were sleeping.

  1. We Continue Eating Even After We Stop Watching TV

A recent study found that, not only do people consume more calories when they eat their meals in front of the TV, they also tend to eat more at the meals that follow. This is particularly relevant when TV viewing occurs during lunch time.  An observable increase of afternoon snacking occurs after lunch time.

The study used 16 normal-weight young women students to examine whether or not TV would impact our eating habits even after we stopped watching television.  The participants had to consume their food while they watched a 10-minute video clip on TV, or they were given the option to eat their meal without the video clip. Lunch was served in both environments. Two and a half hours later, participants were offered cookies as an afternoon snack.  They were told they could eat however many they wanted.  The participants were not aware of the purpose of the experiment.  Interestingly, the women who ate their lunch with the TV on ended up eating more cookies during their afternoon snack time than the participants who ate lunch without TV.  How is this possible?

Researchers identify distractibility as a cause of overeating after watching television.  They reason that because TV distracts your attention away from your meal, it makes it difficult for you to recount specific details about what you ate.  Being able to recall what you have eaten in a previous meal is important because those memories will impact how much is eaten in subsequent meals.  Amnesiacs tend to overeat compared to normal people when offered multiple meals, which shows the importance of memory in eating behavior.

In the previous experiment, the women were requested to rate how well they remembered the meal they consumed.  Researchers discovered that the participants who watched TV while eating their lunch were not able to recall the details of their meal with as much accuracy as the participants who ate without TV.

How to Prevent Weight Gain from TV

Watch less TV and get more physically active. According to the Nurses’ Health Study, 30% of people who are at risk of becoming obese can avoid excessive weight gain by keeping their total TV viewing time to less than 10 hours a week and taking a fast-paced walk for at least 30 minutes a day. This works out to be a little over an hour a day of television viewing.  Thus, one suggestion is to watch less television and incorporate physical activities into your daily routine.

One can limit their TV watching by taking away TV sets from bedrooms and the kitchen and utilizing devices that are meant to limit access to the television. If you are an adult, you can replace 30 minutes of time spent watching TV every day with a slow-paced walk and reap the benefits of losing at least 6.6 lbs of weight in a year—the result of this low intensity cardio workout.

Avoid eating your meals when the TV is on. If you make eating off-limits while you watch TV, eating with the TV off will reduce the effects of TV-related weight gain. If you eat without the distraction of the TV, you will become more conscious of what you eat and will be more sensitive to your body’s satiety signals.  Minimizing the distractions will also help you remember your meals, which will enable you better control subsequent eating.

Final Thoughts

The more you watch TV, the less energy you expend and the more food you tend to consume, usually of the unhealthy kind.  Repeatedly consuming your meals in front of the television can result in overeating over time, which will lead to weight gain and possibly obesity.  Experts suggest you reduce the amount of time you spend watching television and separate the “watching” from the “eating” activity. This will help you control your eating behavior and reduce daily food intake.

About The Author

As a biologist and writer, Matthew Stathis, PhD, enjoys reading and writing about recent findings on obesity research as well as issues related to nutrition, weight loss and diet programs. In his website he offers  Medifast diet online coupons and Nutrisystem coupons discounts, two effective meal replacement weight loss plans that Matthew endorses.

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