Appetite for Distraction: Does Watching TV Make You Hungrier?

Watching television can influence how much we eat.
Watching television can influence how much we eat. / D-Keine/iStock via Getty Images

Sitting down in front of the television with a meal or snack after a long day is a very popular recreational pastime, particularly in the United States. And thanks to streaming services that play every episode of a television series automatically, some viewers aren’t even burning the few calories it might take to reach for the remote. We gorge, both on Bridgerton and on Doritos.

But is it sloth that keeps us chewing, or something else? Is it possible the experience of watching TV can stimulate our appetite?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, television isn’t so much an appetite stimulant as it is an appetite distraction. When we watch TV, we’re engaged in the program, which means we’re paying less attention to the neurological and gastronomical cues that tell us we’re getting full. Instead of taking note of how we're eating, we’re engaged in somewhat passive consumption.

In 2015, a study published in The International Journal of Communication and Health [PDF] surveyed 591 undergraduates at the University of Houston. It showed that the more students watched, the more they snacked. The study also found evidence that increased television viewing was associated with a “fatalistic” view of healthy food intake and poor nutritional knowledge.

One reason could be that excessive television viewing of news, entertainment, and advertising sends conflicting messages about food. A news program might tell you to eat more fruit. A commercial might tell you to eat more cold cereal.

Combining television and snacking also creates a cognitive association in your brain that may prompt you to consider the two activities intertwined. In other words, you might reach for some pizza or chips not because you’re all that hungry, but because you’ve come to identify television with eating. You might even eat more depending on the length of a program. If you’re watching Friends, a half-hour sitcom, you might eat less than if you were watching a super-sized episode of a drama like Mad Men.

That’s not to say the content of a program isn’t influential. In 2013, a study in the journal Appetite looked at a group of 80 subjects, half of whom were told to watch a cooking program and half who were told to watch a nature show. Both groups were presented with equal amounts of chocolate-covered candies, cheese curls, and carrots. Researchers found that viewers of the cooking show—and its lingering close-ups of delectable foods—tended to eat more chocolate-covered candies than the nature show viewers.

Some studies have looked at whether the show's genre can make a difference—watching an action movie over a romantic comedy, for example. But a number of them published in the Journal of the American Medical Association were later retracted, throwing their conclusions into doubt.

So is snacking while watching television that bad? Like most things, it’s OK in moderation. Eating meals away from the TV can encourage mindful eating," which directs your attention to the food in front of you. You’ll be able to pick up on satiety cues when you're not fully focused on your screen. Better yet, you won’t have to struggle to hear your favorite show over all that chewing.