You shouldn’t eat dinner in front of the TV, but you know that already. How about this for a compromise: If you’re going to break out the TV trays, try not to watch action movies.
A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who ate while watching The Island, a Michael Bay movie starring Scarlett Johansson, consumed 65 percent more calories than those who watched Charlie Rose, a more sober-minded news program co-produced by the same company that publishes Bloomberg Businessweek. Turning off the sound helped somewhat: Subjects who watched The Island on mute ate only 46 percent more calories than the Rose viewers did.
While it’s easy to disapprove of eating while watching television, the same dynamic leads people to overeat when eating in social situations. Whether you’re focused on Friends or on your friends, you don’t think twice about having more chips and guacamole. Previous research cited by the authors of the JAMA study determined that the larger the dinner party, the more everyone eats.
Aner Tal, a research associate at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and the new study’s lead author, says the next step is to isolate exactly which factors lead to maximum distraction—jump cuts? Sudden changes in volume? Scarlett Johansson? He has also begun related research into how distracted people are if they eat lunch while scrolling through Facebook.
One solution to such mindless overeating would be to eat in a silent, featureless room by yourself. But there are obvious benefits to eating in groups, and even some advantages to eating in front of the television, which apparently makes you less susceptible to advertising.
Tal suggests doing two things as you’re settling down with your plate and your remote control. First, limit the food in front of you to a reasonable portion. You’ll have to think about whether you want to eat more chips if you have to walk back to the kitchen to fetch them. The other option is to serve yourself healthy food. The subjects in the study were offered four types of snacks—M&M’s, cookies, carrots, and grapes— and they ate just as much fruit as they did sweets.
So parents and everyone else take note: Turning on an action movie could be a way to trick yourself or your children into eating more crudités.