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Excessive television watching linked to unhealthy eating

Communication professor Temple Northup suggests reasons why TV watching is connected to poor eating habits

Dr. Nothrup

A recent study conducted by communication professor Temple Northup suggests people who watch excessive amounts of TV tend to eat more unhealthy foods and might not understand the foundations of a healthy diet.

“I found people who watch more TV had both a poorer understanding of proper nutrition and a more fatalistic view toward eating well compared to those who watched less TV,” said Dr. Northup of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. “In turn, those two items predicted snacking behaviors.”

Previous studies found a relationship between TV use in terms of the number of hours watched per day and unhealthy food consumption.

Northup suggests that because consumers are inundated with advertising for unhealthy food and messages about the latest trends in what you should or shouldn’t eat, they develop poor attitudes toward and knowledge about eating well.

“In essence, the number of hours of TV you watch per day, the more unhealthy foods you eat,” Dr. Northup said. “A common explanation for this is that TV watching is sedentary and encourages snacking.”

He documents the relationship between television use and unhealthy food consumption in his study published in the International Journal of Communication and Health, “Understanding the Relationship between Television Use and Unhealthy Eating: The Mediating Role of Fatalistic Views of Eating Well and Nutritional Knowledge.”

His research, however, also looks at what may be the root causes for an increase in bad eating habits while watching a lot of television.

“There was very little prior research on the psychological reasons this relationship might exist beyond that it’s a sedentary activity that encourages snacking,” he said. “I wanted to investigate underlying psychological reasons that this relationship might exist.”

Two of the measurements he used in his cross-sectional survey of 591 participants are ‘fatalistic view toward eating well’ and ‘nutritional knowledge.’ He also included ‘television and news media usage’ and ‘nutritional intake.’ Northup says the research model is based on similar measures that look at cancer prevention.

In a review of the cancer prevention studies, Northup found that people who adopt a fatalistic view towards cancer, a view that it is too difficult to understand causes of cancer well enough to do anything about it—tend to have lower self-efficacy toward reducing risky behaviors that may cause cancer. 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, he said.

 “It is important to understand how people develop knowledge about nutrition, including examining nutritional messages found within the media,” Dr. Northup said.

The study is available online at

- By Melissa Carroll