On television, we often see families gathered around the dinner table, eating together and talking. While that looks great, for most of us that’s not necessarily typical. Between the post-work commute, afternoon activities, and chores to take care of at home, some nights you’re lucky that dinner even gets made. So it’s probably not the worst thing in the world if you don’t all sit cozily around the kitchen table catching up and instead zone out watching television during the meal, right? Before you let yourself off the hook for this one, you should probably consider the results of recent research that suggest that families dining with the TV tend to have less healthy and less positive dining experiences.
The study, which took place at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, found that families who eat meals in front of the TV may consume unhealthier food and receive less enjoyment eating it than those who don’t watch during meals.1 Trofholz, Amanda C.; et al. “Associations between TV viewing at family meals and the emotional atmosphere of the meal, meal healthfulness, child dietary intake, and child weight status.” Appetite. 1 January 2017. Accessed 14 November 2016. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666316305669. The subjects were 120 families with a child between the ages of six and 12. Recruited at primary care clinics in 2012 and 2013, each family lived in the Minneapolis area and was primarily from lower-income minority groups.
An iPad was provided to the families so they could record two meals eaten together at their homes. The participants were requested to list what was consumed at the meal, how much they all enjoyed it, and the circumstances surrounding the meal. The investigators then analyzed the nutritional value of the meals eaten by the families, noted whether a television was on, and evaluated the level of satisfaction demonstrated among family members during the course of the meal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, 43 percent of the families kept the television on during both of their recorded meals. Approximately one-quarter of the families kept the TV on for one of the two meals, and just one-third of the families kept it off for both meals. What’s more, two-thirds of the families with the television on were focused on what they were watching as they ate, and the remaining one-third just used it for background noise.
The families who dined without a TV on or with it on for one meal out of the two reported enjoying their meals more than their peers who watched during both meals. Surprisingly, whether they paid attention to the TV or not made no difference in this particular aspect of the study. As far as the nutritional effects, the families who watched no TV while dining ate considerably healthier food than those who watched. In this case, paying attention to the screen did make a difference though. Those who had the TV on in the background consumed more nutritious meals compared to those who were active watchers. Plus, the families who ate in front of a television had fast food dinners much more frequently than those who ate without TV.
Curiously, the kids whose families watched TV at meals were not more likely to be overweight or obese than their counterparts who did not watch TV while eating. This portion of the results is contradictory to earlier research. A 2013 study at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that when people are distracted while eating, such as by watch television, they tend to consume more calories in a sitting.2 Robinson, Eric; et al. “Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 27 February 2013. Accessed 15 November 2016. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/97/4/728.full?sid=b9197e3a-4dd2-4ab7-9900-55f65b61600e.
The current study has certain limitations, too. It uses a relatively small population sample and one that is not especially diverse either socioeconomically or ethnically. In addition, we do not know if the problem is actually worse than what was discovered here since the volunteers were aware they were being filmed. In other words, despite being told to have a typical meal, some of the subjects might have kept the TV off or served healthier food because they knew their choices were being recorded by the iPad.
At any rate, we would all be better off spending less time in front of the television, during mealtimes or not. A 2014 study at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain showed that people under the age of 40 who watch a lot of TV double their risk of death.3 Basterra-Gortari, Francisco Javier; et al. “Television Viewing, Computer Use, Time Driving and All-Cause Mortality: The SUN Cohort.” Journal of the American Heart Association. 25 June 2014. Accessed 15 November 2016. http://jaha.ahajournals.org/content/3/3/e000864. Plus, the current study reminds us that a little effort can go a long way with our meals. Buying and preparing healthy dishes will result in meals we enjoy more, and the effort we put into them might be enough to make us decide to leave the television off and talk to one another for an all-around better dining experience on a regular basis. Remember, health issues aside, the study found that people who didn’t watch TV while eating enjoyed their family meals more.
|↑1||Trofholz, Amanda C.; et al. “Associations between TV viewing at family meals and the emotional atmosphere of the meal, meal healthfulness, child dietary intake, and child weight status.” Appetite. 1 January 2017. Accessed 14 November 2016. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666316305669.|
|↑2||Robinson, Eric; et al. “Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 27 February 2013. Accessed 15 November 2016. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/97/4/728.full?sid=b9197e3a-4dd2-4ab7-9900-55f65b61600e.|
|↑3||Basterra-Gortari, Francisco Javier; et al. “Television Viewing, Computer Use, Time Driving and All-Cause Mortality: The SUN Cohort.” Journal of the American Heart Association. 25 June 2014. Accessed 15 November 2016. http://jaha.ahajournals.org/content/3/3/e000864.|