Is Television Priming Us to be Fat?

by Carole Carson, Contributor to Exercise/Fitness on

What do the movie “Inception”, NFL Monday Night Football and the book “Blink” have in common?

All explore the emerging insights into the architecture of the mind–more specifically, the impact of priming. Priming refers to the subliminal messages our minds absorb at the unconscious level that trigger feelings, actions or both. When primed, we take in ideas that influence us without our awareness.

Through an intriguing dramatization, “Inception” explores the possibility of entering and engineering dreams without the dreamer’s awareness. Monday Night Football demonstrates the commercial application of priming, with sponsors eagerly spending an estimated $1.5 billion for ads during this season’s program. And in “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell explains the priming mechanism–how the kind of thinking involved in priming “moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with ‘thinking.’”

Subliminal messages surround us, and many are innocuous or even helpful. For example, credentials and degrees in a physician’s waiting room build confidence in the quality of care we are about to receive. But other subliminal messages can harm our health.

After a filling evening meal, picture yourself sitting in front of the television and feeling a bit hungry. You spontaneously get up and go to the kitchen for a snack. A little later, you repeat the cycle. And again later, you eat another snack. Certainly, being a couch potato can make your waistline expand. But the real culprit may not be so obvious–it may be the unconscious way television primes you for late-night snacking.

In the Midst of An Epidemic of Obesity, Are We Priming Individuals to Eat More?

Imagine, if you will, purposefully exposing adults and children day after day to food priming. If the Nielsen’s Company study is correct, that’s exactly what is occurring. Television viewing has never been higher: Americans are watching on average of five hours of television each day; children are watching television over four hours each day.

And consider this: most of our television viewing occurs in the evening, and late-night snacks are unusually high in calories–for example, ice cream, chips, cookies and snack foods. Eating in front of the television also leads to oversized portions since our attention is focused on the program, not on the food. So a handful of potato chips can quickly become an entire bag.

Since most of us are not likely to give up nightly entertainment altogether, what’s the best strategy to avoid television-induced eating?

Limit television time to two hours for all family members. Also, we can plan ahead. By anticipating our behavior, we can have healthy snacks available if we find ourselves hungry later in the evening. An apple or a small bowl of wholegrain cereal with milk is a good example. Saving calories from earlier in the day is an option as well.

We can also replace junk food ads with self-talk that promotes good health and appropriate eating. In terms of how our minds work, a background message is a background message, whether it comes from a television set or our own thoughts. Both leave indelible impressions. Once we are forewarned that a junk food ad can trigger an impulse to eat, we can counter its effect with self-talk.

Remaining Conscious Is the Challenge

What all of these strategies have in common is a willingness to stay intentional about eating. “Paying attention can make each bite a choice rather than a reflexive response,” says Megrette Fletcher, executive director of the Center for Mindful Eating. “You may love Oreos, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat one every time it presents itself. If you stop and consider that next Oreo and how you’re feeling, you may opt to skip it–or not. But at least it will have been a conscious choice.”

Without moving into a cave, we can’t limit our exposure to the priming cues that bombard us daily, but we can be proactive in managing our eating. Is the effort worthwhile? You’ll have to decide for yourself. The outcome, however, will determine whether you are primed to be fat or enjoying the prime of your life.


Diana S.
Diana P6 years ago

I watch Monday Night Football and yet I'm not guzzling 12 packs of Coors beer, I'm not dining out at Applebee's every night, and I'm not buying trucks that can carry boulders or whatever. It's called self-control. Maybe we need some articles about that instead.

Berny P.
berny p6 years ago

people always seem to need something or someone to blame!

dawn w.
Dawn W6 years ago

I watch way too much tv,and I do notice all the junk food ads and how they manipulate you-all the people eating those candy bars,drinking the soda,buying the huge cheeseburger,are thin.Not so much in real life.

Paula Hurley
.6 years ago


Kirsten B.
Past Member 6 years ago

Should someone find it harder to ignore commercial breaks a trick could be to start recording the programme you want to watch and then sit down to it about 20-30 minutes later, just fast forwarding the breaks.
We do that, but simply because we can't be bothered with the breaks.

Another obvious is limit the junk food bought and kept. And reducing TV time or other activities which induce less than conscious food / drink consumption.

Rachel Beckford
Rachel Beckford6 years ago

Just don't buy junk food.

Anne H.
Anne H6 years ago

TV among other things such as family, friends, ads prime us to be lemmings and consume but that doesn't mean we have to do it.

Parents need to be especially mindful to teach children how to screen out the manipulation of marketing. Being comfortable with who you are as a human is one of those tools. The saleman is not your any form. Ads are all just fancy sales. Even many shows are now a sales pitch, recently saw one on Sea World advertised on Nat. Geo. I play the tv while at the gym, don't own one.

Blink is a good book.

Marcy S.
Marcia Singer6 years ago

Something else i've noticed in TV ads and programs as time has gone on - that the men and boys are getting fatter. Apparently women and girls are supposed to still be slender, but the males are definitely getting fatter. When people see this day after day they unconsciously begin to accept this heftier look in men and young boys as 'normal.'

Megan S.
Megan S6 years ago

5 hours a day!? I can't even remember the last time I turned on the television with an intent other than watching a social/political documentary on netflix!

Miriam W.
miriam w6 years ago

I've been noticing this for years. It always reminds of the movie "They Live" --"eat""sleep""marry and reproduce".
Look up Edward Bernays (the father of PR) for how much we all have been deliberately manipulated.