Why Action Movies Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Does what you watch affect how you eat? You bet.

Posted Sep 08, 2014


It has been brought to my attention that the article I quote in this post has been retracted by the journal in which it was published. However, mindless eating is still an issue for many whether you're watching action movies or not, so my tips for mindful eating are still valid and important. Therefore, skip to the end where I discuss ways to avoid mindless eating and ignore the study about action movies.  

Lastly, thank you very much to the reader who brought this to my attention!

Many of us like snacking on popcorn or candy (or both) from the concession stand when we’re at the movies—and even more of us have the habit of eating in front of a television or computer screen at home.

But is there a relationship between our viewing and eating habits? A new study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined whether what we watch impacts how we eat—and oh, boy, does it ever!

The Nutritional Value of Action Movies vs. PBS Talk Shows

Feeding off the large body of evidence indicating that we tend to eat more while watching television, Aner Tal and colleagues at Cornell University were curious to see if certain shows were more likely to induce snacking than others. They gathered 94 students, divided them into three groups, and had each group watch 20 minutes of television together. He supplied each group with a large quantity of snacks of different nutritional values, such as carrots, grapes, M&M’s, and cookies, and observed what they munched while watching the screen:

  • The first group watched 20 minutes of the 2005 Michael Bay action flick The Island. (Bay is also the director of the Transformers series and other action movies.)
  • The second group watched 20 minutes of the PBS talk show "Charlie Rose."
  • The third group also watched 20 minutes of The Island but with the sound turned off.

The findings were remarkable.

Apparently, when Michael Bay yells Action! he might as well be referring to our mouths. Students who watched The Island—with sound—ate 98% more food, and in doing so, consumed 65% more calories than students who watched Charlie Rose. That’s twice as much food in a mere 20 minutes!

Even more surprising, students who watched The Island with the sound off still ate 36% more food and consumed 46% more calories than students who watched Charlie Rose.

The question is: Why do action movies make us overeat?

Mindless Eating vs. Mindful Eating

So snacking while watching big action movies can leave you as bloated as their budgets. But since even the silent viewing of an action movie contributed to overeating, clearly the sounds of explosions and gunfire is not what makes us empty a bucket of buttered popcorn. So what does?

One of the aspects the researchers considered was pacing. They noted that The Island had almost 25 camera cuts per minute, while "Charlie Rose" had less than 5. (There’s only so many times you can cut back and forth among people chatting around a table.) But while the pacing might be a factor, Tal suspects the main contributor is the level of engagement the different viewing experiences elicit. Action movies are faster paced and therefore elicit more engagement. And movies that elicit more engagement might set us up for the phenomenon known as mindless eating. Too absorbed in what we’re watching, we fail to pay attention to what and how much we’re eating—and that's the very essence of mindless eating.

How to Avoid Mindless Eating

The only way to avoid falling into mindless eating when watching these kinds of shows or movies is to pay more attention to what you eat before you eat it:

  1. Plan what you’ll eat before you start viewing. Consider the nutritional value of your snacks as well as portion size and quantity.
  2. Once you’ve set aside what you plan to consume, do not bring anything else into the room (or theater) with you. Yes, the humongous bag of popcorn costs only a quarter more than the seemingly tiny bag standing next to it, but don’t kid yourself—if you buy the big bag you will eat way more than you planned. Save the quarter, get the small bag and lower your risk of obesity and heart disease, too.
  3. Consider substituting healthy snacks for unhealthy ones. The healthier the snacks you prepare, the less damage you can do by overeating. A bag of carrots or celery sticks is just as crunchy (and as annoying to those sitting around you) as a bag of popcorn, and water is far healthier than any soda or beverage you’ll find at the concession stand (or anywhere else).
  4. If you choose unhealthy snacks, limit the portion size and put the bag away in case you’re tempted to rush to the kitchen to replenish mid-movie. Having to open the cupboard or fridge, untie the bag, and scoop out another bowl can present sufficient speed bumps to allow mindfulness to replace mindless eating.
  5. Watch what you drink. Huge cups of sugary sodas are just as bad for you (if not worse) as huge tubs of popcorn. Of course, if you eat less popcorn you’ll be less thirsty.

Since we tend to watch hours of television and movies every day, changing our eating habits as they relate to our viewing habits could be an incredibly effective way to improve our overall diet and health. And for those unfamiliar with Charlie Rose—give him a try. You might find his show is as healthy for the mind as it is for the body.

For more about how to avoid failing when setting goals of health and nutrition, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

If you want to ask questions about this article or comment (especially if you're say, Michael Bay or Charlie Rose) like The Squeaky Wheel Blog Facebook page and post comments or questions and I will respond to them.

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