Spending a lot of time watching TV doesn't typically help us make our healthiest eating choices, as anyone who has found herself bleary-eyed in front of the fridge during the 20 seconds before Netflix automatically starts the next episode can attest.
But, mouth-watering commercials aside, there hasn't been much of an understanding of why sedentary behavior encourages more snacking and less nutritious choices, until recently. In a new study published in the International Journal of Communication and Health, University of Houston researcher Temple Northup, Ph.D., found that people who get a lot of screen time share a couple of common traits.
"I found people who watch more TV had both a poorer understanding of proper nutrition and a more fatalistic view toward eating well compared to those who watched less TV. In turn, those two items predicted snacking behaviors," Northup said in a statement. "It is important to understand how people develop knowledge about nutrition, including examining nutritional messages found within the media."
The idea of a fatalistic view toward healthy eating was modeled on cancer prevention studies. In that research, a fatalistic view toward the disease, or being of the mindset that it's too difficult to understand its causes, has been found in individuals who are less likely to take steps toward reducing their own cancer risks. In the current study, a fatalistic view toward wholesome eating was measured by how much participants agreed with statements such as, "There are so many recommendations about eating a healthy diet, it's hard to know which ones to follow," according to the study. These people, Northup believes, are more likely to stop trying to eat with health in mind.
"[G]iven the conflicting messages about food presented within entertainment, advertising and the news media, it is not surprising that heavy [TV] users develop these attitudes. After all, on the one hand, heavy users are told to eat a lot of sugary drinks and snacks, while on the other, they are told to avoid those snacks in favor of a variety of other foods," Northup wrote in the study. "If all messages being presented conflict, it becomes hard to decipher exactly what should be followed. This could lead to the belief that it is just not possible to fully understand nutrition." Indeed, the study participants who watched more TV also showed a poorer understanding of nutrition.
Although it's still too early to say that watching TV directly causes obesity, "it is important to acknowledge the role the media may play," Northup wrote.
In the meantime, it can't hurt to arm yourself with a few healthy tricks the next time you're in the mood to veg. Try keeping healthier snacks on hand instead of the junk advertised to you, try doing a couple of quick exercises instead of fast forwarding your DVR through commercial breaks -- or maybe, just maybe, you can convince yourself to turn it off and go to sleep already.