Is Watching TV Making You and Your Family Fat?

Watching TV

Story at-a-glance -

  • The advent of the television era was instrumental in changing the way Americans regard food, snacking and the family dinner, and may have triggered the obesity epidemic that’s facing the US today
  • As television watching became the national pastime, food makers changed their products to be ‘TV friendly’ and advertisers used popular celebrities and TV characters to promote their processed foods
  • Snacking and TV dinners in front of the television replaced the traditional family dinner
  • Obesity has doubled among US adults between 1990 and 2010, while annual medical care costs related to the condition are estimated to be $147 billion

By Dr. Mercola

Grabbing a soda and a bag of chips and planting yourself on the couch to take in a couple of your favorite shows is as American as, well, apple pie. But it hasn't always been that way, as some of you reading this probably remember.

In the early 1900s, spending leisure time at home was virtually unheard of. Americans spent their free time in public places like theaters, parks and fairs. It wasn't until later, in the 1950s, that families began to retreat to their living rooms for entertainment, a trend that coincided, not coincidentally, with the television set.

The advent of the television era begot far more than a change in leisure activities… it was instrumental in changing the way Americans regarded food, snacking and the family dinner, and may, incidentally, have triggered the obesity epidemic that's facing the US today.

From Popcorn to the TV Dinner, the TV Changed America's Eating

In the book Three Squares by food historian Abigail Carroll, you can follow the evolution of the American meal, including the rise, and fall, of the traditional American dinner.

As television watching became the national pastime, food makers changed their products to be 'TV friendly.' Popcorn, once only consumed in theaters or at fairs, became a household staple, as did the concept of 'snacking' on cereal, chips and even 'dinner' in front of the TV. Carroll wrote:1

"Once seen as a moral weakness, an affront to the family dinner, and a lowbrow indulgence that went hand in hand with boisterous crowds and sketchy immigrant vendors, snacking had become a regular household leisure activity by the 1950s.

… Commercialization was the key ingredient in snacking's makeover, and at the heart of commercialization were packaging innovations and advertising campaigns that transformed snack food into a proper, store-bought staple with a sleek, winning, modern look."

TV May Have Killed the Family Dinner

As snacking became more acceptable, it also become more trendy and desirable, thanks to advertisements that involved popular TV characters or were broadcast before and after popular programs.

Foods that were once looked down on suddenly became modern and coveted, and even furniture and appliance manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon to create products that make eating in front of the TV more convenient (i.e. the tray table).

What many Americans didn't yet realize, however, was that every step they took toward 'modern' snack food took them one step away from nature and the nourishing food traditions that had sustained Americans for generations.

" ...The TV Dinner was decidedly distanced from nature—as were most snacking products," Carroll wrote, continuing:

"Advertising dished out plenty of excuses for crossing once sacred consumption boundaries, and the proliferation of commercially packaged goods made crossing them remarkably easy. But as Americans began to suffer from more chronic health problems, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, worries surfaced that they had taken the widely embraced license to snack too far.

Yesterday's special treat had become a culprit contributing to today's escalating ailments. The snack now not only compromised Americans' health but worse, it also threatened to infringe on the family dinner.

With the exaltation of the snack, dinner, the meal by which Americans had come to understand themselves as members of a family and a nation, began to teeter on the threshold of decline."

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In Every US State, at Least 20 Percent of Adults Are Obese

The US obesity epidemic has now infiltrated the nation, with 20 percent obesity rates the norm in every state. In 12 states, the obesity rate is above 30 percent, and among certain groups, such as Hispanics, the rate is hovering near 50 percent.

Obesity has doubled among US adults between 1990 and 2010, while annual medical care costs related to the condition are estimated to be $147 billion.2

Earlier this year, the American Medical Association (AMA) even declared obesity a disease, officially opening the door for a range of medical interventions to "treat" this modern scourge. But we don't need to throw billions of dollars into drug-based obesity treatment and prevention research.

Well-educated nutritional experts already KNOW what's causing obesity and how to fix the problem! The truth is that the processed food industry needs to change, agricultural subsidies need to be updated to promote healthier fare, and the public needs to be told the truth about nutrition.

We also need to stop the dangerous marketing of junk food to children using their favorite cartoon characters or celebrities. Many children are pointing toward these unforgettable characters in the grocery aisles before they can speak, and often the first time they're exposed to this highly effective marketing is right in their own living rooms… on the television.

According to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), children age 2-11 now see an average of more than 10 television food ads per day. Nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in unhealthy fat, sugar or sodium.3

TV Watching Linked to Increases in Waist Size and Weight

A number of studies have shown that the more time you spend watching TV, the more likely you are to develop metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by overweight, elevated insulin levels and hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, and obesity. This holds true both for children and adults, and it's nothing new.

More than 20 years ago, a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, along with experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health, concluded that a child's weight increases with the number of hours he or she spends watching television each day. Adults are similarly affected, with research showing that watching more than 14 hours of TV per week was associated with an increased risk of insulin resistance, obesity and high cholesterol in both men and women.4 One researcher, Dr. Aric Sigman, has identified a slew of negative effects he believes can be blamed on watching television, which include not only obesity but also:

Obesity Delayed healing Heart trouble Decreased metabolism Damaged eyesight
Alzheimer's disease Decreased attention span Hormone disturbances Cancer Early puberty
Autism Sleep difficulties Increased appetite Limited brain growth Diabetes


Watching TV also has a major impact on your brain chemistry. In fact, the longer you watch, the easier your brain slips into a receptive, passive mode, meaning that messages are streamed into your brain without any participation from you. (This is an advertiser's dream, and likely one of the reasons why TV junk-food advertising—particularly ads directed at children and teens—works so well.)

Carefully Assess Your TV Viewing Habits for Optimal Weight Loss

Not only does television encourage inactivity, but it also exposes you to commercials promoting worthless foods. When you're bombarded by non-stop commercials for sugary foods, beverages and snacks, it makes their consumption seem normal or even trendy, when in reality these foods are contributing to obesity and chronic disease. One simple solution is to record any TV programs you regularly watch on a DVR and then you can fast forward through all the commercials.

If you currently watch a lot of television, experiment with eliminating it or cutting down on it and see how your weight is affected. The bright side of all of this is that while the invention of the television had a marked impact on Americans' eating habits and, likely, their weights, the tide is beginning to turn once again. Carroll wrote:

" … our eating habits have never been stable—far from it, in fact. The eating patterns and ideals we've inherited are relatively recent inventions, the products of complex social and economic forces, as well as the efforts of ambitious inventors, scientists and health gurus."

Today, millions of families have now ditched TV in favor of services like Netflix primarily because you choose each piece of media you or your child watches and it is always advertisement free. So this is another option you can consider that will allow you to break free from TV's spell. Of course, it wouldn't be fair to blame the entire obesity epidemic on the television and its role in snacking. The issue is far more complex than that…

One More Weight Loss 'Secret' to Share with Your Friends

Conventional advice tells us that obesity is simply the result of eating too many calories and not exercising enough. However, Dr. Richard Johnson's research shows that a high-fructose diet is one of the keys to trapping excess fat and developing metabolic disorders, and that as soon as you throw fructose into the mix, "calories in versus calories out" is no longer a functional equation.

In short, limiting fructose in all its forms, along with other sugars, is imperative in order to avoid "flipping the fat switch" that can trigger your body to accumulate excess fat. And replacing sugar and grain carbs with vegetables and healthful fats is the key to normalizing your weight, metabolic function and overall health. Applying intermittent fasting is also another powerful tool that will dramatically assist your efforts to achieve your ideal lean body mass and eliminate the hunger cravings that drive you to consume junk foods and sugar.

Admittedly, the TV still plays a role here, as many of the processed foods advertised on television are the very high-fructose foods and beverages you're better off avoiding.