Watching Action Movies Could Cause Overeating: Study

The Island McGregor Johansson - H 2014
Courtesy Everett Collection

The Island McGregor Johansson - H 2014

A new Cornell study tested the effects of specific programming on eating habits

Diets have come in fads during the last few decades. You may have heard of the South Beach diet, the Atkins, the Paleo or Weight Watchers, but what about the Charlie Rose diet?

While previous research has shown that TV viewing in general encourages increased snacking, a new Cornell study published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association set out to test the effects of specific programming (action-heavy content in particular) on eating habits; in other words, it focused on the message, not the medium.

To test their theories, researchers randomly assigned 94 undergraduate students to one of three conditions: watching excerpts from The Island, a 2005 action film starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, with sound; watching the interview program The Charlie Rose Show; or watching the same clips from The Island, but without sound. Each viewer was provided with large bowls of M&Ms, cookies, carrots and grapes to snack on while watching the clips, and these bowls were weighed before and after viewings to measure the amounts of each snack eaten.

Participants who watched the action movie, both with and without sound, ate more than those who watched The Charlie Rose Show. In fact, those who watched The Island with sound ate nearly twice as much as Charlie Rose viewers: 206.5 grams as opposed to 104.3 grams.

And it’s not just men, who make up the majority of action film viewers, who have to worry — the study showed that while the effects of action programming on men were more pronounced, women also ate more while watching The Island than The Charlie Rose Show.

In a statement to CBS News, Aner Tal, an author of the study and post-doctoral research associate in Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, said: “We find that if you’re watching an action movie while snacking, your mouth will see more action too!” He went on to explain, “More stimulating programs that are fast-paced, include many camera cuts, really draw you in and distract you from what you’re eating. They can make you eat more because you’re paying less attention to how much you are putting in your mouth.”

But the authors of the study also concede that distraction may not be the only reason viewers of action-packed programs eat more; other potential causes include increased anxiety, agitation and stimulation levels, but will require further studies to confirm.

In the meantime, there’s no need to stop watching Spike TV or Game of Thrones in favor of Sunrise Earth. Study co-author Brian Wansink, who also teaches at Cornell and serves as the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, told CBS: “The good news is that action movie watchers also eat more healthy foods, if that’s what’s in front of them. Take advantage of this!” He and the other researchers recommend pre-portioning movie time snacks and sticking with healthy options such as carrots or grapes. If you can do that, you may not need that kale smoothie on the way to work.