Emotional eating: television and your quest for optimal health

01.13.15 |

A few weeks ago, I conducted an informal Facebook poll that asked the members of the Optimal Health Community to share their greatest health challenges. Resoundingly, the answer was emotional eating.

I talk about emotional eating in my books, but since the need was great I wrote an independent article about emotional eating and how to conquer that is still available on my site for free. Emotional eating came up again when we talked about the challenge of emotional eating during the holidays, which is essentially emotional eating tied to feelings of happiness or celebration instead of sadness.

That’s an important distinction. We often think of emotional eating as being exclusively tied to negative emotions. In reality, emotional eating can piggyback on any intense feeling—happy, sad, angry, or even bored—because the reward is deeply impactful, a key factor in reinforcing habits.

Believe it or not, we get an emotional reward from an activity as passive as watching television. Television could be a way to relieve stress, an escape from the chaos of the work week, a source of riveting entertainment, or even a bonding activity with a spouse or loved one. This should be clear: there is nothing wrong with needing or seeking out these emotional rewards. Relieving stress and finding enjoyment in our lives is important, but building those rewards around a sedentary behavior like television-viewing sets us up for a slew of health challenges.

Anecdotally, we have known for some time that television viewing is associated with unhealthy, but recent studies have verified our concerns. For example, the journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism published a study in 2014 that evaluated young children in Canada and found a link between television-viewing and poor eating patterns. More recently, The International Journal of Communication and Health published a study that found that as time spent viewing television increased, so does the likelihood of having an unhealthy diet.

In the Habits of Health, we talk about being mindful because running on autopilot can easily get us into trouble. In the case of watching television, we can all too easily start with a bowl of chips and not stop until the entire bag is empty. When we become mindless, we let our habits take over. If we have taught ourselves to associate television and snacking with positive emotions like stress-relief and entertainment, we will reenter that habit loop each time we sit the couch. This is why you might experience a craving for a salty food when you sit down to watch your favorite show, even if you aren’t really hungry.

This new study, led by Prof. Temple Northup of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, TX, uncovered a new wrinkle about television viewing that makes unweaving this particular Habit of Disease even more complicated. Northup and his team found that the content of television programming itself leads to misunderstanding about nutrition, which in turn makes viewers feel like trying to understand nutrition at all is in fact hopeless.

Understanding nutrition is, of course, not out of reach, but it’s not surprising that the torrent of conflicting news and information about nutrition frustrates many. That’s one of the reasons why I write these posts; I want health to be more accessible for everyone.

With this new insight, how can we conquer an emotional eating habit tied to television and how can we sift through a confusing stream of health advice?

  • Record your favorite shows and watch them later. This has multiple benefits. Watching television this way eliminates commercials (a major source of misinformation and temptation), and it also helps you cut down on your total overall viewing time. If Habits of Sleep are a struggle for you, you can also use television recording to keep yourself from staring at a screen late into the night.
  • If you look to television for stress relief, look to adopt a more engaging pastime. Reading books is great. Listening to audiobooks while you’re on a walk is better. Also, you could pick up a hobby like yoga or bike-riding to take a more stimulating and active route to relieving tension.
  • Get your questions about health answered. You are the steward of your own health, and you have every right to understand how your body works and what is best for your health. If you see a report or hear a message that confuses you, talk to your health coach or doctor to alleviate your concerns. Additionally, you can always pose your questions to our community.
  • Stock your home with healthy snacks. Making the right eating choices is easier if you think ahead and fill your kitchen with fresh vegetables and fruits instead of chips, cookies, and chocolates.
  • Start small. Don’t expect yourself to instantly give up television or to always make the right choice. Learn from your experiences, even if you make mistakes, and try to make each day healthier than the last.

Those tips should help you get started. Remember that health is within your reach, and that you don’t have to do it alone. We are here to help.
Also, if you would like to learn more about the studies referenced in this article, this news piece is a great place to start.