Binge eating while binge watching can be a hard habit to break

'If someone has always had popcorn or candy when they're at home watching TV, then as soon as they switch on the remote they think 'What should I eat?'”

What happens when we bring movie theatre eating habits home to our living rooms?

The food concession at the Maya Cinemas Theatre sells popcorn, skittles, M&M’s and other sweet treats for moviegoers. (The Associated Press)

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

One glance at the theatre concession stand and it's obvious what kind of nutrition a day at the movies will encourage. It may be hard to resist the urge to snack on buttery popcorn, some chocolate and a large drink. These high calorie, sodium and sugar-filled foods have always been a part of movie theatre culture.

But what happens when we bring those movie theatre habits home to our living rooms?

Eating in front of the TV is a habitual conditioned response, said Toronto-based registered dietitian and nutritionist Rosie Schwartz.

"If someone has always had popcorn or candy when they're at home watching TV, then as soon as they switch on the remote they think 'What should I eat?'"

Eating for pleasure, not hunger

One problem with this behaviour is that eating becomes an automatic response to watching a screen instead of eating to satisfy hunger. Snacking on processed foods with high contents of carbohydrates and fats makes it easier to overeat.

The more carbohydrates we consume, the more dopamine is released by the brain. This is a strong motivational response to keep up that behaviour, said neuroscience researcher and nutrition author Stephan Guyenet.

"Addiction-like behaviour toward food presents itself as strong cravings," said Guyenet. The more dopamine you are going to get from a certain food, the more motivation you will have to eat that food over and over again — binge eating.

The other problem with eating while watching TV is that most of your attention is on the screen, the plot, the characters and the other various elements of the story. "If you are eating a bowl of chips and watching a fabulous show — you are not enjoying the chips. You may be enjoying the whole scenario but you are concentrating on the program," said Schwartz.

She suggests that if you are going to be eating a lot of calories, you should enjoy them. If you're hungry, pause the show, go into the kitchen or sit somewhere else to eat and drink. Make a conscious effort to set an appropriate portion of food for yourself and to stop eating when your hunger is satisfied.

Binge eating in front of the TV is a hard habit to break. Schwartz said the part to really work on is not eating anything in front of the TV — ever. If you only eat when you can pay attention to your food, you have better chances of staying in control of your habits.

Since food with more carbohydrates releases more dopamine to the brain, CBC News asked moviegoers if trading their bag of popcorn — and all its processed ingredients — for a bag of vegetables would impact their movie experience. One person said "If it's a blockbuster movie, maybe, but I think fruits and vegetables would be kind of cool too." Another moviegoer said they'd love to have vegetables as an option.

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Kelsey Mohammed is one of the 2019 recipients of the CBC News Joan Donaldson scholarship. She has experience reporting at CBC Toronto and Winnipeg.


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