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Stop the See Food Diet


If you’ve ever had your sweet tooth stoked after seeing an ad for candy you’ve already experienced how images can impact your appetite. Now, a new study explains the science behind the stimulation. German researchers asked healthy male volunteers to view pictures of either food or other objects, after eating, while they collected blood every 15 minutes. Blood levels of a hunger-stimulating hormone called ghrelin (think gremlin) rose significantly when food images were viewed. The bottom line of the study is it’s not just in your head; seeing food triggers a true physiological response that drives you to eat, even when your body isn’t in need of fuel. 

A previous University of Liverpool study found that overweight and obese children upped their food intakes by more than 100% after watching food ads on TV. Another found that making food choices based on television ads shown during primetime hours and Saturday morning would pack 25 times the daily recommended sugar intake, but less than half of the optimal number of fruit and veggie servings.

In the 1970s we were exposed to about 500 commercials each day; today it’s 5,000. So apart from putting blinders on what can you do? The biggest factor you can control is your TV time, a major source of food ad exposure. Try putting these three strategies into action:

Cut Back on TV
I love TV; it’s my escape and guilty pleasure, but I really try to limit it to can’t-miss shows because it’s so easy to get sucked into a TV trance. One study of over 9,000 U.S. adults found that those who watched more than two hours a day were more likely to be overweight or obese (both males and females) across all socio-economic and demographic groups.

Separate Eating and Watching
A UK study looked at what happened when two groups of people were given a 400 calorie lunch; one during a TV show, the other without.  Later that day, all the participants were given cookies, asked to recall lunch, and rate the vividness of the memory of their meal. TV watchers ate significantly more post-lunch cookies and their lunch memories were much more fuzzy. This makes perfect sense because TV is distracting. It is hard to pay attention to both food and the television at the same time. If you’re not aware of what you’re eating, it’s much more difficult to feel full or satisfied, which can lead to more mindless munching.  

Did you know that research has found that watching TV burns fewer calories than just sitting quietly, doing nothing? Try to do something while watching: fold laundry, iron, organize stuff (photographs, jewelry, etc.), groom your pet, stretch, put outfits together, and most importantly get up and walk away during commercials, so those images of piping hot pizza won’t drive up your hunger hormones.

How do you feel about TV? Have you cut back or set up rules of your own? Please share your thoughts here or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.


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