The Psychology of Dieting Part 3: Watching TV While You Eat

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TV Serving Tray

In Part 2 of this series, I discussed the dangers of eating alone and why the family dinner may not be the best thing for us if we’re trying to lose weight. In this article, I would like to discuss the dangers of what is often thought of as replacing family dinners: eating dinner while watching TV.

I read an article yesterday that cited research from Nielsen concluding that the average American watches 34 hours of TV each week. If we eat while we’re watching TV, then, we’re nearly turning eating into a full-time job. Sure, family dinners may be bad for the diet. But could the alternate¬† be even worse?

In Part 1 of the series, I mentioned the famous popcorn study. While watching a movie at the cinema, people ate more popcorn out of bigger buckets than they did out of smaller buckets. But eating from smaller dishes isn’t the only takeaway from this study. People also ate more stale popcorn from the bigger buckets than they did from the smaller buckets.

People ate the popcorn even though it tasted bad. Why did they do this? Of course, there is the effect of the size of the bucket. But, could something else be at play? What about the fact that these people were watching a movie? Could that have caused them to eat more stale popcorn than they would have otherwise consumed? It turns out that this idea was tested in another study…


Researchers assembled a group of 94 participants and provided them with M&Ms, cookies, carrots, and grapes to consume while watching a short film segment. A third of the group watched a talk show, a third of the group watched a clip from action film The Island, and a third of the group watched a clip from The Island without sound.

At the end of the segments, the average amount of calories consumed by the group watching the talk show was 214.6 calories. So, yes, merely watching film made it easier for the subjects to eat.

But the fascinating part is what happened when subjects watched a segment of the action film. The group that watched The Island with no sound consumed 314.5 calories and the group that watched The Island with sound consumed 354.1 calories–65% more than those who watched the talk show.

The conclusion? Not only does watching TV cause you to consume more calories, but the more fast-paced the programming is, the more calories you are likely to consume.

So, how can you use this study to change your eating habits for the better? Here are a few tips:

  • If you’re going to watch TV while you eat, try watching slower programming. Watch talk shows, documentaries, historical films, light-hearted dramas, and so on.
  • If you’re watching something fast-paced on TV, take the opportunity to consume some healthy calories. Put a bowl of carrots or grapes on the table instead of a bag of potato chips.
  • Finally, portion your food out while you’re watching TV so that you do not keep eating. If you must eat potato chips, put a handful in a bowl instead of eating from the bag. If you order pizza, put a few slices on a plate instead of leaving the entire box in front of you.


Aner Tal, Scott Zuckerman and Brian Wansink. (2014). Watch What You Eat: TV Content Influences Consumption. Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4098.

featured image (TV serving tray) courtesy of Joe Haupt, licensed via Creative Commons.

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