Bam! Just like that, food entertainment took over our televisions.
With last years debut of the Cooking Channelsister to the wildly popular Food Networkwe now have two ways to access food TV around the clock. Thats in addition to Top Chef, Hells Kitchen, and countless niche programs ranging from the obscure Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern to the charming DC Cupcakes.
Flay, Batali, Ray, and Ramsay have become household names, and its not hard to see why: Half of Americans watch food or cooking shows "very often" or "occasionally," according to a 2010 poll by Harris Interactive.
All this talk about food may start your stomach growlingand that could be a problem. As the food-entertainment revolution has expanded, so have our waistbands. In the early 1990s, before the Food Network or Top Chef, 56% of Americans were overweight or obese. That number has since grown to 68%. Are these two trends somehow related?
An array of factorsunhealthy diets, too little physical activity, sedentary jobs, busy scheduleshave conspired to promote widespread weight gain. "Our intake of calories has increased about 300 a day since the 1970s," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University, and the author of Nutrition & You: Core Concepts for Good Health. "Were eating more processed food and our environment is conducive to eating 24/7."
Celebrity chefs arent entirely to blame, of course. But our fascination with food TV may not be helping. Most hit cooking shows dont exactly focus on health food, and research suggests that being exposed to images of appetizing food can spur us to eatand overeat.
If a recipe calls for tons of butter and cream, theres a good chance Paula Deen whipped it up. The silver-haired southern cook has become a Food Network star thanks to heart-stopping dishes such as Fried Butter Balls, which, as you might have guessed, are nothing more than butter and cream cheese coated in breadcrumbs and fried in oil.
Some of Deens critics have suggested that fatty dishes such as these are contributing to unhealthy eating habits and obesity. When the chef appeared on The View to promote a new kid-oriented cookbook in 2009, for instance, cohost Barbara Walters confronted her about the nutritional content of some of the recipes.
"Obesity is the number-one problem for kids today," Walters told Deen. "You tell kids to have cheesecake for breakfast! Doesnt it ever bother you that youre adding to this?" (Deens reply? Kids should be taught moderation.)
Theres no clear-cut evidence that the recipes featured on food shows are urging viewers to eat unhealthily, but its a credible theory.
Even though many people watch the shows for entertainment alone, others emulate the cooking they see on TV. Fifty-seven percent of people who watch cooking shows buy food as a "direct result" of something theyve seen, the 2010 Harris poll found.
Likewise, viewers are flocking to the websites of their favorite star chefs for recipes. The Food Networks recipe-driven website attracts more than 8 million visitors per month, and Deens website, Paulas Home Cooking, was the second most popular cable-network TV-show website in 2009.
And those fans certainly arent shying away from unhealthy recipes. In 2010, the 10 most popular recipes on FoodNetwork.com included no fewer than three fat-laden macaroni-and-cheese dishes, and pumpkin dessert bars made with an entire stick of butter and 8 ounces of cream cheese. Deens Baked French Toast Casserole With Maple Syrupwhich calls for an entire loaf of bread, 2 cups of cream, and a half-pound of butter (thats two full sticks)came in at number 11.
The nutritional content of the dishes featured on TV alarms some experts. "A lot of these shows have a responsibility to not only entertain but to educate," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the author of Read It Before You Eat It. "Im not a food prude. I love cooking. I love eating. But I dont think you have to use as much sugar and as much fat and salt as many chefs are using."
Food shows can make you hungry
Even if you dont re-create recipes from your favorite episodes, you may be altering your diet subconsciously just by watching. Research suggests that seeing pictures of appealing food in magazines, advertisements, and especially on TV can stimulate your appetite in unhealthy ways.
Michael Lowe, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, has studied for 30 years what drives us to eat. Hes found that, when combined with the accessibility of tasty food, tempting images of foodwhat scientists call "visual food cues"can unleash a strong desire to eat, even if our bodies dont need the fuel.
All it takes is seeing a desirable food (in real life or elsewhere) to increase the perception of hunger. These food cues affect us in several ways. Much like a carbohydrate-rich meal, they appear to trigger a release of the hormone insulin, which may stimulate areas of the brain involved in craving. Images of food may also trigger pleasant memories of eating similar foods in the past.
The more senses you excite, the stronger your desire, and the more powerful food becomes. "Just words or descriptions would be a low level of desire," Lowe says. "Smell would form a stronger desire. Color pictures would be stronger than black and white. Video would be stronger still because youre beginning to imagine the cooking processthe combination of the butter with the cream."
Deen-style comfort food may be especially potent in this respect. In one 2009 study involving brain scans, women who viewed images of high-fat foods (such as pastries, hamburgers, and pizza) showed increased activity in regions of the brain associated with appetite and craving. That didnt happen when they looked at images of fruits, salads, seafood, and other healthy fare.
Whats more, food cues appear to have the deepest effect on people who are dieting and often have to restrain themselves from eating certain things, whereas they have relatively little effect on people who eat what they want. These cues can come in the form of images or smells, or even just thoughts about food. Lowe explains that people who struggle with weight are often the people who have a hyperactive appetite to begin with and are more susceptible to the effects of these food stimuli.
In large doses, TV can be problematic for your waistline, whether youre watching a cooking show or something else. Studies suggest that watching too much TV can contribute to weight gain by negatively affecting metabolism and encouraging snacking. Watching food and cooking shows may therefore represent an especially unhealthy combination: prolonged inactivity mixed with near-constant images of appetizing foods.
The flip side of cooking shows
Food shows might be making you hungry, but thats not to say theyre always bad for your health. A renewed interest in cooking at home is a good thingalthough whats on the plate matters.
"It brings families together," Taub-Dix says. "The kitchen is the heart of the home. Its wonderful all these chefs are bringing people into their homes and showing them ways to prepare food themselves."
Regular family meals have been linked to better communication and relationship building, higher achievement, and better grades in school, as well as greater nutrition for the entire family. Studies have also found that kids who participated in family dinners were less likely to be overweight, drink or abuse alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use drugs.
In fact, the Cooking Channel is dedicated to just thatgetting people excited about spending time in the kitchen and inspiring them to prepare much more than traditional, boring meatloaf. Salge Blake, the registered dietitian from Boston University, says she hopes food shows get more people to start cooking, think about where their food comes from, and make healthier choices.
Plus, all food shows arent plugging unhealthy fare. Some, such as the Food Networks Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger, focus on health-conscious yet yummy meals, Taub-Dix notes. She wishes more shows "would get with the program," but even so, shes "thrilled at the light that its shining on food."
No matter how you fry it, bake it, steam it, or grill it, were in the midst of a food revolution. We havent seen the public eye staring at food like this in quite some time, and if nothing else, it starts a mouthwatering conversation.
"Food entertainment has the potential to both harm and help us," Lowe says. "That same exposure to yummy foods could be turned into a therapeutic experience if people are taught how to get the most flavor without the most calories."