Confession: One of my favorite evening rituals is settling in on the couch and eating dinner while watching Netflix. The combination of eating and watching is so enjoyable to me that I will literally let my food go cold while I’m scrolling for something to watch. This isn’t just me—the concept of watching-while-eating is ingrained in American culture. We are a people who love to snack on popcorn at the movies. We literally invented the TV dinner.
Here’s the thing though: Eating with a fork in one hand and a remote in the other goes against all healthy eating true-isms. Focus on every bite, we’re told. How does the food feel in your mouth? What are the sensations in your body? Eating mindfully is supposed to help curb overeating and keep us more satisfied, but I have to say, I’m not a fan. A few years ago, I spent every meal doing this for a week and I was so intensely bored. What gives?
“For my clients who look forward to eating while watching TV in the evenings, it’s because it’s their way to relax and turn their brain off,” says nutrition therapist Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, and owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “They get a lot of pleasure eating while watching something.” (Same!) That’s because both eating food and watching TV can offer a quick hit of dopamine, the pleasure chemical, says Sophie Mort, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and guide for the app dedicated to cultivating sustainable happiness Happy Not Perfect. (So yeah, we do it literally because it feels good.)
This is partially a cultural thing, says Dr. Mort—in other places, people don’t always combine eating and watching TV. “In some countries food is the event but in America for example, and in many places in the world now, food is more complicated,” Dr. Mort says. “People often feel that if they’re enjoying their food, it’s a ‘guilty pleasure’ and they feel bad about it.” Enter TV and other distractions to take our minds off of the actual eating.
Dr. Mort adds that many people eat while watching TV because our culture values productivity, making it rare for us to do one thing at a time. Why just eat when you can also squeeze in your only time to catch up on Jane the Virgin? “Mindful eating—and mindfulness in general—does not play into this,” she says. “Living a mindful life actually goes against how society tells us to act, which is part of what makes it so difficult.” This is why we eat in front of our computers, too, she says—people don’t take true lunch breaks because they’re too busy trying to get everything done.
“If you want to eat dinner while watching Friends as a way to de-stress and you know that’s going to make you feel better, then go for it!” —Elise Museles, certified eating psychology and nutrition expert
Childhood can come into play for some people, too, says Dr. Mort. If food was strictly only allowed at the table in your house when you were a kid, she says that makes a person less likely to develop a eating-while-watching habit than someone whose family had weekly pizza dinners in the den while watching a movie together. Of course, someone could have eaten all their meals at the table growing up and still love to eat dinner during The Bachelor, but often there is a connection.
This might all sound like a bad thing—isn’t mindful eating the gold standard? But there is some room for that Netflix marathon while you chow down. “If you want to eat dinner while watching Friends as a way to de-stress and you know that’s going to make you feel better and will accomplish that goal, then great—go for it!” says certified eating psychology and nutrition expert Elise Museles says. “What can become a slippery slope though is when it starts becoming a habit and you don’t even know why you’re doing it.” That, she says, can lead to some not-so great feelings later at night: Has it really been two hours? I had stuff to do! I definitely ate way too much and now feel kind of sick.
Museles argues that there’s still room for mindfulness when combining food and TV watching. “If you ask yourself what your intention is before you sit down on the couch with your food, it will change the outcome,” she says. If you decide to go ahead, then you can be content knowing you’re doing something you actively decided to do. Sometimes you may decide to do something else, she says—and that’s fine, too. “Maybe you realize that you feel like doing it because you’re lonely, so you decide to call a friend instead,” she says. She also recommends periodically checking in with yourself as you watch—maybe doing a quick body scan between commercials or while another episode is loading to see if you truly are still hungry, for example.
“The key is to ask yourself why you’re doing it,” Museles says. “Being connected to that ‘why’ adds mindfulness to it, even if you’re being…well, mindless.”
While we’re talking about American food culture, here’s why we’re do obsessed with avocado toast, among other healthy foods. Plus, inside the rise of the Instant Pot.
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