With TV Cooking Shows, Watch, but Don’t Imitate

Women who got menu ideas from such programs had a higher BMI than those who did not.
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A plate from Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. (Photo: Food Network)

A plate from Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. (Photo: Food Network)

The obesity epidemic has been pegged to a variety of causes, from our sedentary lifestyles to the proliferation of unhealthy fast food. Newly published research suggests another possible contributing factor: The Food Network.

A study of young single women found an association between body-mass index—a widely used indicator of obesity—and learning about new foods from TV cooking programs. Social media was the only other source of meal-preparation information associated with a greater likelihood of being overweight.

“Watching cooking shows (for entertainment) was not associated with higher BMI,” writes researchers Brian Wansink of Cornell University, Lizzy Pope of the University of Vermont, and Lara Latimer. For those who use such shows as tip sheets, however, the association was as evident as the one between cake and frosting.

“Individuals who obtain food information from social media sites may be viewing others who are eating or cooking less healthy meals, which could make it seem like their own unhealthy habits are the norm.”

While previous research has found a correlation between cooking from scratch and lower BMI, these results suggest the opposite is true of those who make their own meals using information gleaned from the tube.

The study, published in the journal Appetite, featured 501 women between the ages of 20 and 35 “who were living on their own, were non-vegetarian, and whose family had lived in the U.S. for at least two generations.” This particular demographic was chosen “because of their possible impact as nutritional gatekeepers.”

As part of an online survey, participants identified “their three favorite places to learn about new foods.” Aside from cooking shows, these included newspapers, magazine, health-related websites, blogs, social media, cooking classes, and “recipes on the package.”

They also reported their height and weight, and indicated how often they cook meals from scratch.

“The only sources of recipe information related to one’s BMI were cooking shows and social media,” the researchers report. “Watching chefs prepare indulgent dishes on TV, watching a famous host enjoy over-the-top foods with other people all over the country, or viewing others’ social media food pictures and recipes might suggest a social norm for preparing these types of food.”

The researchers believe social media and televised food programs both reinforce bad eating habits. They note that hosts of TV cooking shows “could be seen as authorities on food,” a status that gives their guidance more, er, weight.

Meanwhile, they add, “Individuals who obtain food information from social media sites may be viewing others who are eating or cooking less healthy meals, which could make it seem like their own unhealthy habits are the norm.”

This combination—receiving de facto permission to eat unhealthy meals from both an authority figure and their peers—may explain the unwanted effect found here.

The obesity epidemic predates the 1993 inauguration of the Food Network by at least a decade, and the 2004 launch of Facebook by more than two decades. So these contemporary pop-culture icons don’t deserve all the blame for our blubber.

But the research suggests more programs featuring healthy cuisine could have a significant positive impact. And individual cooks should be careful about who they “follow.”

Those meals that appear so appealing on your television or computer screen don’t look nearly as good when they’re on your waist or thighs.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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