Here’s Why We Overeat in Front of the TV (and How to Stop)

Five tips for breaking your distracted eating habit
Man watching TV and having a snack

Do you ever eat dinner with a fork in one hand and the TV remote in the other?

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For many people, the preferred way to unwind after a long day is by plopping down on the couch, kicking up their feet and vegging out in front of the TV.

Unfortunately, this habit has the potential to lead to overeating and, eventually, weight gain.

“It’s fine to sometimes have a snack in front of the TV, but when it becomes a repeated pattern, or when eating and watching TV become cognitively linked, then it becomes an unhealthy pattern,” explains psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.

Food plus TV equals distracted eating

If you’re eating in front of the TV (or computer, or smartphone, for that matter), chances are you’re paying more attention to what’s happening on the screen than to the spaghetti you’re putting into your mouth.

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“We tend to eat more mindlessly in front of the TV,” Dr. Albers explains. “We also don’t taste and experience the food as much because we’re distracted.”

This not only makes food less satisfying, but it makes it easier to miss cues that you’ve eaten enough, like seeing how much is gone from the plate or feeling that your stomach is getting full.

Research backs up this idea, too. Studies show that we tend to eat more when we’re distracted — both in the moment of distraction and later on in the day.

“I think eating while watching TV also prolongs the time period that we’re eating,” Dr. Albers adds. “If your show is an hour long, you might continue to eat throughout that time period.”

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Breaking the habit

If you’re ready to start eating more mindfully, start with these tips from Dr. Albers:

  1. Disconnect the two behaviors. “It’s fine to have a snack while watching TV, but take a break and move over to the table to have your snack, and then come back to the TV,” she suggests. Research shows that giving your food the attention it deserves may reduce the amount you eat, plus cut down on hunger and snacking later.
  2. Choose wisely. If you’re hankering for something in the evening hours, choose a snack that’s not sugary or caffeinated. Complex carbohydrates such as whole-grain breads, cereals or crackers may help promote sleep.
  3. Set limits. It can be helpful to think ahead and set limits — both in terms of your snacking and your TV watching. Commit to eating just one cup of popcorn (instead of the whole bag) and to only watching two episodes of your show (instead of the entire new season). If you’re watching TV in the evening hours, this can also prevent a Netflix binge from cutting into your sleep time. Missing even one or two hours of sleep could throw off your appetite hormones the next day, Dr. Albers says, which could set you up for cravings for sugary and salty foods and overeating.
  4. Give your hands something to do. Besides snacking, that is. Find an activity that will keep your hands busy while you’re watching TV, like knitting, coloring, painting your nails, squeezing a stress ball or doing a sudoku puzzle.
  5. Invite a friend. “Sometimes watching TV with other people can be helpful, because we role model our behavior with them,” Dr. Albers says. “We tend to not mindlessly eat as much when we’re with someone else.”

Sleep, stress and a whole variety of emotions can also contribute to overeating, so if you’re having a hard time reigning in your TV-snacking, consider whether there might be other factors at play.

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