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What Eating in Front of the TV Does to Your Body

If you’re snacking your way through a ‘Survivor’ binge, here are some tips to help you untether

I could spend hours slaving over the greatest meal ever made before immediately letting it go cold as I aggressively comb YouTube and Netflix for something good to watch. Alas, somewhere along the line, I unfortunately became a person who needs the TV on while he eats, a habit that appears to be contributing to my expanding abdomen. After all, eating while watching television is something food experts have long warned about.

“Eating in front of the TV is a great idea if you’re looking for a way to eat copious amounts of food without ever hearing the ‘I’ve had enough’ signal from your body,” says hypnotist Lori Hammond, who specializes in weight loss. “When we choose distracted eating, we cut ourselves off from the experience of tasting food. You can only pay attention to one thing at a time, and paying attention to the glowing box in your living room literally turns off your ability to pay attention to the pleasurable experience of eating, so you want to keep eating more.”

Moreover, what you choose to watch can have different effects on how you eat, and even how that food ends up being digested. “Suspenseful shows create even more self-sabotage,” says Hammond. “That heart-pumping car chase floods your body with fight-or-flight chemicals — adrenaline and cortisol — that slow down the metabolism and ensure the food you eat gets stored as fat around your waistline.”

Fortunately for the sake of entertainment — but unfortunately for our increasingly bulging bellies — shows these days tend to be more suspenseful than ever. “Television today is riddled with faster-than-life scene changes,” says psychologist Glenn Livingston, author of Never Binge Again, which you can download on his website. “Count the number of scenes in a 10-minute segment of I Love Lucy or a show from the 1960s, then compare it with episodes of modern shows, and you’ll be astounded. These constant changes of scene alert the brain as if it were in a totally new environment each time. This, in turn, puts the brain in ‘emergency assessment’ mode, wherein an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system prepares us for potentially required action.”

For example, Livingston says most shows today are “replete with scantily-clad women, car chases, explosions, tense situations that require resolution and more. All of these things place the brain on high alert: Is a potential mate available? How do we assess, seduce and/or repel them? How do we escape danger? What other opportunities are available to us if we act quickly? All of this goes on in the unconscious processing our brains take care of for us minute-by-minute and second-by-second, and all of it keeps us in a very primitive state. The problem with this primitive state and food is, we’re much more prone to activate our ‘feast and famine’ response.” 

The outcome? More mindless munching and less actual fulfillment.

The good news is, you can eat properly and watch TV so long as you do so mindfully and intentionally. “Bring your food with you to watch TV, but make a rule,” Hammond suggests. “When the show is on, my fork is down. When the commercial comes on, hit the mute button and take a bite of food. Close your eyes, and really feel it in your mouth. Notice the texture, the taste, the smell.” 

If the show has no commercials, Hammond says, “Pause the show when you pick up your fork, and follow the steps above. This back-and-forth competition between the TV and food rapidly becomes irritating. You’re immediately going to realize you’re not fully enjoying either when you try to do both. What if you treat yourself by letting yourself savor both things separately?”

Huh, I guess I could give that a try.

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