I need to apologize to all of you who spent 104 minutes sitting in front of your TVs to watch Fat Head. I especially apologize to those of you who ordered the DVD and enjoyed the 40 extra minutes of bonus interview footage. If you ordered the international version that also included the 60-minute Big Fat Fiasco speech, you’re probably deceased already, so instead of apologizing I’ll offer my condolences to your family.
In my own defense, I sincerely believed that by watching the film, you’d learn something that would help you improve your health. It was only this morning that I discovered I was contributing to your early demise by encouraging you to sit in front of a TV at all. At least that’s what I gathered from the results of a new study:
TV watching raises risk of health problems, dying young
No one ever claimed that watching TV was healthy, but doctors are only now discovering just how bad it can be. Evidence from a spate of recent studies suggests that the more TV you watch, the more likely you are to develop a host of health problems and to die at an earlier age.
In a new analysis published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers combined data from eight such studies and found that for every additional two hours people spend glued to the tube on a typical day, their risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases by 20% and their risk of heart disease increases by 15%.
And for every additional three hours the study participants spent in front of the TV, their risk of dying from any cause during the respective studies jumped 13%, on average.
You can see why I’m especially concerned about those of you who ordered the DVD. With the bonus interview track, I seduced you into watching TV for 144 minutes, thus inducing diabetes and heart disease. Now toss in the 60-minute speech on the international version, and I’ve raised your risk of dying from any cause by 13%. Somewhere in the world, someone is fighting for his life after contracting swine flu and screaming, “Damn that Tom Naughton! He never should’ve created a DVD with more than three hours of viewing material!”
One of the sections of the Science For Smart People speech I deleted to meet the time limit dealt with the concept of a plausible mechanism: If A is accused of causing B, can we describe how A might actually cause B? When power lines were falsely accused of causing cancer, level-headed scientists pointed out that the magnetic energy produced by power lines is too weak to penetrate human skin and therefore isn’t capable of damaging DNA. There was no plausible mechanism.
So as I began reading about this new study, I wondered if perhaps the radiation from TV screens somehow damages both the endothelial layer in coronary arteries and the beta cells in the pancreas. I tried to find the full text of the study online but could only dig up an abstract, which didn’t mention a plausible mechanism. However, I found the answer in a CNN online article about the study:
The connection between TV and disease isn’t a mystery. TV watching eats up leisure time that could be spent walking, exercising, or even just moving around, and it has also been linked to unhealthy diets, including consuming too much sugar, soda, processed food, and snacks — foods, perhaps not coincidentally, that are often found in television commercials.
What’s more, some studies suggest that prolonged sitting, over and above its impact on eating habits and exercise, may cause metabolism changes that contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels and obesity.
(You’ll have to excuse me if the rest of this post is full of typos. I’ve decided to jog in place while writing to avoid prolonged sitting. My keyboard accuracy is bound to suffer.)
So there’s your answer: sodas and sugary snack foods are advertised on TV, so people who watch a lot of TV consume more sodas and sugary snacks and then get sick as a result. Boy, we’d better pass some kind of regulation limiting TV time, or least ban advertising junk food on TV.
Since this is merely an observational study (actually, a meta-analysis of observational studies), I’m going to ask myself one of the critical-thinking questions I mentioned in Science For Smart People: Is it possible that A and B are associated because of C?
Yes, I think it’s possible. In fact, I’d bet on it.
Watching a lot of TV has been indeed linked to consuming more sodas, processed foods, and other junk. The writer of the CNN article seems to assume this means TV is to blame for the lousy diet – A causes B. Could be, but I doubt it. I’m guessing advertisers have figured out that people who spend half their waking hours watching TV are largely the same people who consume junk foods, so they advertise heavily on TV. Advertisers know their audiences. If you watch golf, you see ads for investment firms, luxury cars and Lipitor, but I doubt anyone would conclude that watching golf causes people to buy mutual funds and Cadillacs.
Same goes for the association (which is fairly weak, by the way) between watching lots of TV and developing bad health. I don’t believe people develop diabetes and heart disease because they watch too much TV. I believe consuming a lousy diet (C) causes people to feel lethargic (A) and also to develop diseases (B). If you’re feeling lazy, you’re more likely to sit on the sofa and channel-surf.
When I was still operating under the belief that a high-carb/low-fat diet was good for me, I was always haranguing myself to exercise more. Often the haranguing worked. I’d go for a jog or a long walk, but didn’t enjoy it because I was tired. Other times, after promising myself all day that I’d go for a jog in the evening after work, I’d end up ordering pizza and watching TV instead.
I’m older now, but also more active. I work out. I roust my girls to go outside with me and toss a Frisbee. Four or five nights per week, I go for a four-mile walk after my wife (a natural morning person) has gone to bed. I don’t have to horsewhip myself into being active. I look forward to it because I feel compelled to burn off the excess energy. The difference between now and then is my diet.
You may remember the inspiring email a man named Cary sent me awhile back. This was how he felt on a lousy diet:
Basically, for the past 5 years I’ve felt like a “fat cow” with no motivation or energy to do much of anything to change my situation. I mean, I limited my calories and ate lots of carbs (you know… “your body’s fuel source” according to the so-called “nutrition experts”). And yet I felt tired ALL THE TIME. It didn’t matter how much sleep I got, I was ALWAYS exhausted upon waking.
Exhausted people don’t exercise. They sit around. They watch TV. But Cary changed his diet:
Within the first three days I noticed a serious change in my mood and energy level. Rather than feeling run down and tired I was feeling awake, alive, alert, focused, and energetic. I began exercising to get rid of the excess energy I had… and I’ve been exercising four or five days a week for 60-90 minutes each session ever since! And that still doesn’t tire me out! I am overflowing with energy now.
I’ve heard similar stories from other readers. Here’s part of an email I received last week:
Once I saw your movie I had to test it out. I began eating more fatty meat, butter, coconut products, whole milk and cut down on carbs. Within a day I felt this surge of energy I barely have felt since childhood. My mood and energy improved greatly. I felt that I could stay up late and get up early. I have cut caffeine way, way down, because I don’t need it to compensate for low energy.
And another I received two weeks ago:
My kids (ages 3 and 5) have gained energy and want to go outside from the second they wake up, and yet even with the energy their behavior is much improved and they are focusing better as well. My 5-year-old sat down the other day for a good hour and made a little picture book, and let me tell you getting her to sit down and focus on anything but the TV was pretty impossible before this.
These are changes I hadn’t even thought about; I was just hoping to lose weight! Speaking of which, my husband and I are losing lots of that weight, and we both have so much energy we literally have to go work in the garden every single day or we go crazy. It’s odd, feeling this way, when before doing anything was a huge ordeal.
Lousy diets make you lethargic. They also lead to bad health. Sitting around watching TV isn’t causing bad health. Lousy diets are causing both.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my wife and I have some TV shows on the DVR we want to watch tonight. After we’re done, I’ll go for my four-mile walk.
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