Too Much TV Will Kill You?

      44 Comments on Too Much TV Will Kill You?

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.

If you enjoy my posts, please consider a small donation to the Fat Head Kids GoFundMe campaign.

44 thoughts on “Too Much TV Will Kill You?

  1. js290

    Would it be safer to watch your DVD in front of the computer?

    Yes, because technically that’s not a TV.

  2. Slade

    In my psychological statistics class, my professor had a great example for correlation doesn’t mean causality. During the summer, ice cream sales increased, and the number of drownings also increased. Does ice cream cause drowning?

  3. Jim Anderson

    I had some fun with this one, too. The study specifically says that “TV viewing” is what kills you. What about just listening? What about watching on a computer instead of a TV? In truth, I don’t sit and watch much TV anymore. I sit and use my laptop. I think I am safe until the next study.

    Just don’t spend more than two hours reading that next study.

  4. Stabby

    True that, the final statistics that they came out with aren’t all that impressive considering that a substantial amount of excessive TV watching is caused by poor health. There are actually some downsides to too much sitting but we can’t ascribe that statistic that the study produced to those effects of too much sitting.

    Either way, best to at least get up at commercials, if indeed we are as vital as we are and have the energy to do so, and if someone isn’t then they should probably eat better.

    I skip the commercials, which is why I don’t have diabetes.

  5. Lori

    “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.”

    I see. So that’s why playing chess, reading the classics and doing metastudies aren’t linked to health problems–nobody snacks while they read, work or play board games.

    Clearly correct. I wonder if anyone’s done an obesity study of people who spend hours per day watching A&E or PBS.

  6. Dominic DiCarlo

    I tell my students that there probably is a connection between eating ice cream and drowning – the higher the consumption of ice cream, the more people drown. Which one is the cause and which one is the effect? They sit like a deer trapped by headlights and wait for my question: “Under what condition do these two events take place?” Someone will usually get it – hot summer weather.

    I wonder what would happen if companies like Coca Cola and other junk-makers decided to fund education – for example buying books for the school – and put logos and ads on the covers of books. Pretty soon researchers will have to argue that reading Shakespeare leads to obesity. LOL.

    Sad to say a study of how Shakespeare causes obesity would probably get funding, too.

  7. Peggy Cihocki

    It’s true! We haven’t been low fat, high carb for some years, but we still ate carbs–probably more than we should, and my husband still had a blazing sweet tooth. Wondered why he couldn’t lose the fat in his midsection, even though he was working out and doing some walking and biking. He saw your video and heard me talk about Gary Taubes’ new book. So we cut way back on carbs and cut out the sweets pretty much completely. Now all of a sudden he is putting in a couple hours of exercise every day, walking distances that he couldn’t before, and talking about how much energy he has! And I hiked 2 1/2 miles up a mountain (1400 foot elevation gain) last Friday with my daughter and her boyfriend without hardly even breathing hard. The hike down was actually harder. My hubby is 70 and I’m 64, so we’re not young, but eating low carb gives us tons of energy and amazing endurance. And the belly fat is melting away. We’re never going back to the old way of eating!

    Funny how eating the right diet makes you feel younger, isn’t it? I feel better at 52 than I did at 32.

  8. Bex

    Lol….we watched Fat Head on a PC…..three times now. I believe last time I was drinking tea and eating stir fry prawns. The only thing the film does that may be slightly unhealthy is make me really really want a McDonalds….(but then so did Supersize Me – we watched that too, to pick holes in it….)

    I’ve heard from a lot of people who confessed that watching Super Size Me made them hungry for a Big Mac. Probably not what Spurlock intended.

  9. Bex

    Forgot to add….didn’t set an alarm this morning – woke up at 5am and off to the gym – nice to not feel like a zombie in the mornings…

  10. Milton

    Well, you convinced me: the next time I sit down with a big bowl of syrup-topped ice cream, a box of cookies and a bag of potato chips, I’m gonna grab a book!

    There you go. Just don’t eat those snacks in front of your TV.

  11. Eliza

    I am so screwed. I spend waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much time on the computer.

    Technically, that’s a TV, so you may be okay.

  12. Larry

    This has nothing to do with television, but I recently found out a fellow I used to work with had a heart attack. He’s only 37. I’ve been following his twitter. The last three weeks, he’s been doing cardiac rehab and changing his diet. He’s posted on his “Heart Happy Breakfast!”, which includes Banana Nut Cheerios, Pineapple Pancakes, Honey Nut Cheerios, Oatmeal & Apple Bran Muffin, and Whole Grain and Granola Pancakes.

    Sounds like he’s been ordering the diabetic plate.

    Oh my lord …

  13. Scott Moore

    People find out I eat low carb and they say “I can’t eat low carb because I need the carbs to run (or whatever).” I tell them that I’m 49yrs old and I play full court basketball for 1.5 hours, 4 days per week. There’s generally a bit of mumbling “yeah, but my body doesn’t work that way…” and the subject gets magically changed…

    If they’re not keto-adapted, they probably do run out of gas without their carbs. But that can be changed.

  14. Peter Ballerstedt

    And just how many are in “a spate?” I’m guessing it’s about 8 …

    Clearly, they should have specified “commercial TV,” since watching PBS is critical to our health and welfare.

    We’ll all be starting a lawsuit soon to get some of that vast funding you received from McDonald’s …

    Thanks for mentioning “Voodoo Science” in your latest talk. A great book. Well worth reading. It got me thinking about some of the “conventional wisdom” we share in the paleo / primal / low carb communities.

    It is amazing what’s passing for “science” days.

    Thanks for another great post.

    Very good analysis.

  15. Felix

    I think the reasoning goes that watching TV is linked to obesity, because it raises stress levels while keeping you disengaged, which is the passive stress associated with all diseases of civilization. Even those studies which controlled for diet showed a dose-response relationship between TV-time and obesity. There’s more to it than snacks, probably.

    I’ll need to dig out the references for this.

    Send ’em along. I only watch shows I enjoy, which I find de-stresses me.

  16. Sue

    In another example of what ‘everyone knows’ being pretty inaccurate, Brian Johnson’s new book ‘Everything Bad is Good For You,’ makes a case for TV and video games being good brain training. It started with nutrition, but I find that I am using my critical thinking skills a lot these days. Thanks for your part in making me question pretty much everything that starts with ‘a new study shows…..’

    My pleasure. The more critical thinkers, the sooner we win.

  17. The Older Brother

    Crap. I’ve spent so much time reading the Fat Head blog, you’ve probably given me cancer, too.


    Just remember to move around while you read.

  18. Jon

    Speaking of diabetes, a “dietician” just came to our unit to speak to a woman who is in a pre-diabetic state. She was told to have six small meals a day spread throughout the day.

    What was one of her first meals prescribed? A cup of cranberry juice. Fantastic.

    Head. Bang. On. Desk.

  19. Erica

    I’m here to report that my belly fat is melting away, too, since I stopped eating grains and 95% of the sugars a month ago. Soon I’ll be forced to go buy some new pants; these are practically falling off. Something I’d like to point out is that I haven’t been able to lose this belly fat for 20 years!

    I am working as a volunteer in a hostel/b&b, so am climbing stairs, hanging out linens, and making beds every day, but I also sit several hours at my laptop reading LCHF posts.

    Those are great results, Erica.

  20. Ricardo

    I dont have cable so it forces me to to go the gym and be active cause i got nothing better to do. Though even if i did have cable i wouldn’t want to watch T.V. nothing on television that i wanna see nowadays. I mostly just download my T.V. shows though.

  21. ChrisNpiggies

    Oh no! I hope it’s not too late to learn that watching too much T.V. will kill you! They have closed circuit tv in our lunchroom at work with the latest going-ons at the plant and pictures of coworkers, and info on supporting worthy causes like American Heart Association. I’ve been watching that for years! No more though! Now I sit in my hot car for lunch and listen to the radio instead.

    Just don’t stare at the radio. That may produce the same health hazards.

  22. I'm Gonna Die

    Agree completely, though Felix makes a good point. That recent popular study that showed sitting for long periods is directly associated with mortality gets the same interpretation…”omg sitting is bad for you!” Really I think the issue is that most people who sit for 8 + hours a day are working at office jobs they hate, leading to the stress/disengagement thing, a whole huge quality of life issue. I don’t think sedentary jobs are the ideal for human health but I also don’t think “sitting in a chair for 8 hours” causes early death in and of itself.

    I also think sitting and doing anything boring (mindlessly watching TV rather than focusing on a show you love, sitting idly at work, etc.) leads to mindless eating out of boredom, and yeah, it’s usually junk food. Until I cut out grains and sugar, my office snacks were donuts, muffins, chocolate, whatever snack someone brought in, even pop…”treats,” mostly not real food. This was in spite of loving veggies, meats, good wholesome foods, and eating them often.

    All good points. Too many variables to pin it down.

  23. Mike

    These studies drive me nuts! How many times will recommendations come out to treat symptoms instead of causes? It’s like our *smart* politicians wanting to ban toys with happy meals because they think that children make the meal choices in every family and no child can resist a happy meal!! I work as an engineer and in any problem solving situation, you have to do two key things to give yourself a chance at success – accurately define the problem and establishing root cause. Most of these uber-giga-meta observational studies fail on all accounts while stating conclusions as fact.

    Keep up the good work Tom!!

    They keep shooting at the wrong target, then wondering why nothing changes.

  24. Verimius

    Reading is just as sedentary as watching television, so why are people who read a lot not criticized in the same way as television viewers?

    There’s an element of morality in this: reading is perceived as a praiseworthy activity, while television is considered morally questionable.

    Bingo. Let’s see this study done on people who spend hours per day watching artsy channels.

  25. Katie in FL

    Okay, I am watching “How Bad Science and Big Business Created the Obesity Epidemic” on YouTube, and I am 35 minutes into it. It is excellent and very similar to a Gary Taubes lecture. The lecture is given at a dinner, and 35 minutes into it I still hear forks and knives rattling amongst the crowd. I am dying to know how many carbs are on that menu and if he is going to tell them to enjoy their dessert at the end!

    Okay, a confession: we had the premiere party for Fat Head at an Italian restaurant because that was the only local room we could book that was sufficiently large. So my guests ate pasta and pizza.

  26. Carolyn

    Ted, Thanks for the link to the David Diamond lecture. Wish that Atkins was still alive to see this paradigm shift.

  27. James

    I read the first part of the report and got all excited about ripping it apart, and then you did it for me (and with a lot more humour than I would have done)! You’re a funny man Tom!

    I was cooking dinner last night while my wife was watching the news, and I only got a glimpse of the screen which happened to have people working at the computer… on treadmills… which I thought might be an interesting news story to hear, but forgot about it until now. Here it is for you to enjoy!

    I just can’t imagine writing while walking. I like to keep them separate.

  28. Dave, RN

    “I roust my girls to go outside with me and toss a Frisbee”.

    Lucky man! I can’t get my 17 year old to exercise at all, unless you count heavy sighing and eye rolling… in which case she could be an Olympic competitor.

    At this point though she’s 5’10 and 104 lbs soaking wet eating mostly junk.

    My daughters are too young for the eye-rolling competition, but I expect that’ll change when they reach their teens.

  29. Katy

    “Just remember to move around while you read.”

    YES, and here’s the best thing to do that:

    I have one, and it’s great! You don’t have to put your laptop on the support platform; a book or magazine work just fine–or just relax and watch the TV:-)

    Could be fun, but I like walking outdoors and listening to books.

  30. Mike

    What happens if I watched your movie because I got diabetes and was seeking information? Do I get even more diabetes?

    Yes, it’ll get worse.

  31. CG

    It might, if I have to watch stuff like this:

    As much as I appreciate Jamie Oliver, some parts he’s wrong about. I disagree that ‘pink slime’ as he calls it, is inedible – at least if probably raised and handled.

    In any event, thanks for the work you do, and using the popularity you’re gaining with Fat Head to make a difference to people who possibly don’t get it, or don’t understand, yet.

  32. Jim the Historian

    The problem is not watching TV per se (as you clearly note) or even what one watches on TV (obviously some people watch programs that have an improving effect on them). The problem is what most people do while they are watching TV, which is eat junk food in the form of carbohydrate-laden snacks; it’s a relationship made in heaven (or hell, as the case may be). It’s hard to balance a plate with a roast chicken and green beans while you sit in your recliner and watch the tube. It’s easy to hold and consume a bag of potato chips or pretzels or corn chips or candy while you view. It was a relationship that was fairly early noted by movie theater owners back when the cinema was in its infancy, and thus was born the concession stand with its popcorn, sodas, and candy. Reading a book or working at the computer (or playing at it) are also relatively sedentary pursuits, but they do require more use of one’s hands, making it a bit more difficult to munch your snacks while you partake (not impossible, of course, but more difficult). Go back to the Andy Griffith clip: what do you notice? They’re sitting around a table together having their dinner of meatloaf (and perhaps side dishes heavy on the vegetables). Several decades later and all manner of circumstances, social, cultural, and economic, make such a scene a relative rarity. Let’s face it, the simple carb-based diet is easy to eat away from a table (after all, the reason the Earl of Sandwich called for his meat to be wrapped in slices of bread in the 18th century was so he could keep his hands relatively free to pursue his gambling interests–or at least so the story goes). TV is not the cause of our national obesity, but it does, for huge numbers of people, enable them to more easily feed their addiction to what is the cause: the carbohydrates.

    Indeed, it comes down to diet.

  33. Dina

    Really, Tom, not only have you made me ill (bought the international DVD), but I’ve shared it with my entire family. You might end up a mass murderer… 🙂

    I guess I’m now a member of the Manson family.

  34. SkyKing

    Every once in awhile I go back to the old neighborhood where I lived as a child to visit the old folks that still live there. These are the parents and grandparents of my childhood friends. They are now mostly in their 80’s and 90’s. I still can’t believe how many of them are still living at home, not to mention still alive!

    These folks do nothing but stay home and watch TV all day/night long! One of them is a woman who never worked/exercised a day in her life, since she was born with this physical defect in her leg that prevents her from straightening her ankle. She was always a stay-at-home mother who received disability payments throughout her life. She’s presently 94 yrs. old and still lives at home by herself. What does she do all day long? Yup! Watches TV!

    All that TV will kill the old lady any year now.

  35. Firebird

    @ Kimmy, there is a show on FitTV about low fat cooking. The girl is quite attractive, which hooks me in to watching her, but then I bang my head on the back of the chair’s head rest when she explains her recipes, and how she is replacing the fat with more carbs! Her biggest faux pas? She made a spinach salad with a non-fat vinaigrette. Why is that a faux pas? Spinach is a pretty good source of Vitamin E. However, Vitamin E is a fat soluble nutrient…it needs to have fat taken with it in order to transport it through the body. So, she has just wasted spinach as all that vitamin E just gets flushed out of the system with little or any of it being utilized.

  36. Barry

    “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.”

    Great line. Funny AND smart. Or, is it smart AND funny? Either way, well done.

  37. LXV

    I play video games on my TV. Your only hope is that the time in front of the TV kills me before the games turn me into a mass-murdering psychopath.

    Wow, you’re a headline waiting to happen. If TV doesn’t kill you before your first rampage, we can only hope it makes you too lazy to load the gun.

  38. LilyCharlie

    The general consensus I am pulling from you and most of the comments here is that science is bad. Now while I agree that much misinformation has caused great harm in the name of science, it seems to me that turning your back on it completely is a fairly infantile and dangerous reaction. “Bad scientists on big grain’s payroll lied to us!!?? DOWN WITH SCIENCE FOREVER!!”

    Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    In your post above, you denounce causation implied by others from this study, and then proclaim your own causation. While in general I completely agree with your diet recommendations, I think your attitude and spin is very dangerous. I don’t actually feel that either CNN or the study’s publishers themselves had the gall to proclaim causation as strongly as you did.

    A couple of other things: because the study focused on/discussed tv watching does not mean it exonerated other kinds of sitting activities. You/your readers assumed that. Also at what point does the study say you can NEVER watch a DVD/TV show? It spoke to averages. Again, YOU assumed that ANY amount was a fatal amount.

    Your know-all attitude undermines the good work I know you are trying to do. I really feel like you need to take a step back and check your spin. It’s one thing to kid yourself; it’s quite another to find yourself a vehicle for the same kind of harm to others you are trying to prevent.

    I’m trying to figure out where you came up with the interpretation that I think all science is bad. I think BAD science is bad, and I consider it important to educate people how to recognize bad science, especially since there’s so much of it in the health and nutrition fields.

    As for exonerating other forms of sitting besides TV, the readers and I were being sarcastic, wondering why sitting to watch TV is bad for us while sitting to watch an opera is okay.

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