Flabby or Fit? How Cooking Shows Impact Appetite and Awareness

Last week, Hollie McKay of Fox News tackled an often-discussed, little-researched subject: Do Cooking Shows Make You Fat? Food-related programming such as fast-paced competitions, helpful tutorials and glamorous, gluttonous travelogues span the airwaves from major networks to niche cable channels. As McKay points out the ever-growing "television smorgasboard" of popular shows like "Top Chef," "The Next Food Network Star" and "America's Next Great Restaurant," she also ponders whether this notion of food-as-entertainment might in fact be contributing to the country's obesity problem.

Television watching has long been blamed for contributing to weight issues. It's a largely sedentary behavior, and advertisements featuring unhealthful foods often trigger a hunger reflex and unnecessary snacking. It's logical to then assume that watching an entire program on a city's best food offerings, the preparation of a gourmet meal or an all-you-can-eat challenge would ignite some sort of cravings, leading the viewer to think with their stomach instead of their head.

Even "healthier" cooking shows—which are few and far between—aren't without blame, since, as Australian nutritionist Susie Burrell points out, the lack of exhibited measuring on camera encourages audiences to cook with a similarly free hand in their own kitchens. An extra half a cup here and there can easily add up when it comes to ignored calories. Burrell also believes that the overabundance of fatty, "gourmet" ingredients on these shows encourages unhealthy eating habits for the sake of flavor. The majority of food prepared on TV, in her opinion, is restaurant-style food—dishes that should be consumed only once a week, or even once a month.

But cooking at home is supposed to be healthier than eating out because you have the ability to measure ingredients, and know exactly what is being put into your meal, right? One supporter of this theory is the always-opinionated Anthony Bourdain, who recently shared his thoughts on food TV on Nightline. "Food TV, even at its dumbest, has been good for society as a whole in that it's raised awareness, people care more about what they eat, and at least are more aware of where it comes from," he said. Likewise, dietitian Tayna Zuckerbrot told FOX that "educating people on the importance of certain foods...can empower viewers to make better food choices and assume ownership of what they put into their mouths."

All this discussion of food television impacting will, motivation and responsiblity got us thinking about a different sort of phenomenon—the one where viewers hungrily devour on-screen meals with their eyes while running or cycling at the gym. Mention of this behavior sparked a debate amongst the iVillage editors, many of whom felt that it seems purely masochistic and counterintuitive. Wouldn't watching an hour's worth of food preparation help you work up such a large appetite, you might be convinced to undo all your hard work with an indulgent meal once you return home?

For those who are equally as passionate about flavorful food as they are about exercise, forcing themselves to salivate while working out is akin to a "carrot and stick" punishment and reward. They are, effectively, working towards the goal of a delicious (and guilt-free) meal. For others, like the blogger behind Salt and Serenity, it's all about the entertainment value. She spent a good chunk of her vacation on the treadmill enjoying The Cooking Channel, mentally bookmarking recipes to replicate at home.

In both of these scenarios, the exerciser is keenly aware of both the repercussion of overeating, and the knowledge that indulgence must be offset by calorie expenditure. It's this awareness that makes us think that food TV isn't necessarily a bad thing, and though appetites might be stimulated by the constant onslaught of food imagery, so might they be by driving past a restaurant in a car, seeing an advertisement in a magazine or walking down the aisles at a grocery store.

In this age of food and chef celebrity, we're constantly surrounded by such stimuli, and at the end of the day, it is up to the consumer to make smart decisions about what will go into their body. And, as Mr. Bourdain pointed out, it is actually the cooking programs that are educating the viewing public to make those decisions.

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