Heavy television watching may lead to unhealthy dietary habits according to new research conducted by University of Houston (UH) professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication Temple Northrup.
Implicated in the study are increased snacking, suggesting that people who watch a lot of TV tend to eat larger quantities of unhealthy foods and possess little understanding of the foundations of healthy diet.
A number of previous studies found a relationship between TV use in terms of the number of hours watched per day and unhealthy food consumption, notes Dr. Northup, an assistant professor at UH’s Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. “In essence, the number of hours of TV you watch per day, the more unhealthy foods you eat. A common explanation for this is that TV watching is sedentary and encourages snacking.”
In his study, which was recently published in The International Journal of Communication and Health, Dr. Northup documents the relationship between television use and unhealthy food. The paper is entitled Understanding the Relationship Between Television Use and Unhealthy Eating: The Mediating Role of Fatalistic Views of Eating Well and Nutritional Knowledge” (The International Journal Of Communication And Health 2014 / No. 3) Dr. Northup observes.
Obesity is a serious and growing problem, both in the United States and worldwide as more people in developing nations adopt Western-style diets and lifestyles. Although many factors can contribute to becoming overweight or obese, Dr. Northrup maintains the importance of studying the role entertainment media may play, and the objective of his research is to examine in particular the impact television-watching has on nutritional perspectives and knowledge, which can in turn be predictive of unhealthy food consumption. To that end, Dr. Northrup conducted a survey of attitudes toward diet and healthy eating related to television use, fatalistic views regarding nutritional knowledge, and unhealthy food consumption habits.
Based on mediation analysis, Dr. Northrup finds fatalistic views and nutritional (perceived) knowledge partially mediate the relationship between television use and unhealthy food consumption, implying that advertisements for unhealthy foods, entertainment programs conveying faulty nutritional messages, and conflicting perspectives on proper nutrition disseminated in news reportage bombard consumers of television with frequently dubious dietary advice and concepts, by which television media encourage T.V-watching individuals already possessing poor understanding of nutrition to adopt fatalistic attitudes toward eating healthy, which relate to poor diet.
Nearly one-third of the United States population is now obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] metrics and the obesity rate has doubled globally over the past thirty years (World Health Organization, 2013). Most troubling and noticeable is impact on children; for example among kids in the U.S. aged 6 to 11, 19.6% were obese in a 2008 survey — sharply up from 6.5% of this demographic in 1998. Obese children are more likely to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and too-frequently Type 2 diabetes, health problems likely to be carried with them on into adulthood Dr. Northrup notes citing previous study data, and observing that overweight and obesity are not just personal issues, but a public health problem with as obesity associated medical costs an estimated $147 billion in 2008 (CDC).
Dr. Northrup notes that one specific outcome associated with confusion regarding causation of negative health outcomes (e.g.: obesity) is development of fatalistic beliefs relating to feelings of helplessness and inability to prevent or understand the cause(s) of something, and while no research has been conducted determining an association between media use and fatalistic views about healthy eating, news media use and fatalistic views about cancer have been associated by research finding that the notion that it is too difficult to understand causes of cancer well enough to do anything about it causes lower self-efficacy with respect to cancer risk-reducing behaviors. It can therefore be reasonably deduced that that persons who develop fatalistic views toward nutrition, due in part to confusing media coverage, may likewise develop lower self-efficacy regarding eating healthy, resulting in belief that nutrition is too difficult to understand, and probably give up trying to eat well and slouching into unhealthy dietary habits such as tending to eat more snack foods.
Based on foregoing foundational research, Dr. Northrup says the purpose of his study is to:
a) replicate previous research wherein there was an association between media use and unhealthy eating
b) extend previous research by determining if there is a link between media use and the development of fatalistic views toward eating healthy, as well as a link between media use and poor nutritional knowledge, and
c) to see the extent to which fatalistic views and poor nutritional knowledge mediate the relationship between media use and unhealthy food consumption.
Given that there has been very little prior research on psychological reasons a relationship between obesity and media consumption might exist beyond it being an essentially sedentary activity that encourages snacking, Dr. Northrup wanted to investigate underlying psychological reasons for this relationship to exist, using a research model based on similar measures that study cancer prevention.
In the context of TV use and unhealthy eating, he believed that those with a more fatalistic view toward eating well tend to eat more snack foods. If these individuals think nutrition is too difficult to understand, they will probably give up trying to eat well, and it is important to understand how knowledge about nutrition is develop, including examining nutritional messages found within the media with the hypothesis that relentless advertising of unhealthy foods and information/disinformation about the latest trends in what you should (or shouldn’t) eat, contribute to development of poor attitudes toward and faulty knowledge about eating well.
Dr. Northup is also co-director of the Gulf Coast Food Project (http://www.uh.edu/gcfp/). His research focuses on psychological effects of media, paying particular attention to the unconscious mechanisms that drive attitudes and behaviors and how the media may help to influence those mechanisms.
Dr. Northup’s study is available online at
University of Houston
International Journal Of Communication And Health
University of Houston