How binge-watching Netflix can make you fat

Just one more episode ... and one more handful of chips.
Just one more episode ... and one more handful of chips. Photo: Shutterstock

Put down the chips! Mindless snacking in front of the television can lead to weight-gain, insomnia and other health risks.

Just the other night, right after eating a good sized dinner, I binge-watched an entire season of my favourite series on Netflix, all while munching on a large packet of crisps. The result? Twisting and turning all night in bed from raging nightmares.

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology confirms a correlation between eating before bed and nightmares, supporting how junk food or binge-eating can trigger brain waves that cause disturbing dreams. Additional research from the International Journal of Psychophysiology found spicy foods were specifically linked to nightmares as a result of increased body temperature – which explains my experience.

However, according to new research night-time snacking contributes to more than just night terrors.

Night-time snacking and junk food cravings may contribute to unhealthy eating behaviours and represent a potential obesity risk, in addition to poor sleep, a recent study by University of Arizona Health Sciences sleep researchers found.

Australian research published in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise confirms those who watched TV for more than four hours a day were at greatest risk of an inflammatory-related death. In general, there was a 12 per cent increased risk for every extra hour of watching TV.

Connecting the dots between our eating habits while chilling in front of the small screen for hours, a 2015 study published in The International Journal of Communication and Health that surveyed 591 undergraduate students on their viewing, eating and drinking habits, found that the more TV a person watched, the more unhealthy food he or she was likely to eat.

"We very often binge-watch TV to switch off or as a form of escapism at the end of a busy day or week, and because Netflix has the feature to autoplay the next episode or rerun entire seasons, it can easily suck us up for hours, which makes us more susceptible to mindless snacking, in other words overeating," explains food psychologist Georgie Beames. Findings from researchers at the University of Liverpool agree that people who ate while they were distracted by the TV, not only ate as much as 25 per cent more at the time but also later in the day.

Nutritionist Megan Chircop adds that because we associate the evening with relaxation, most of us head to the cupboard for comfort foods containing high levels of carbohydrates, saturated fats and sugar.

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"The metabolic nature of such foods is extremely quick, and this results in blood sugar spikes, which from a health perspective is a classic recipe for pre-diabetes, cardiovascular risk, sleep apnoea and unhealthy fat, which is strongly linked with weight gain," explains Chircop.  

Further triggers

Mindless eating is also impacted by what's happening on screen.

Researchers from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab found that sad content made participants eat 55 per cent more than those who watched more upbeat content. Action content made subjects eat twice as much – 98 per cent more than those who watched a talk show.

"Tear-jerkers promote emotional eating to compensate for the sadness you're feeling as you reminisce your own personal feelings," says Chircop.

Similarly, action movies compel you to eat as a way to cope with the stress response. "Comfort eating can make you feel temporarily better, as such foods turn off the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline," says Beames.

Less-obvious cues that impact our urge to eat include food-related content such as cooking shows or movies where the protagonist is eating (think Chocolat).

Better snacking habits

"Skipping your main meal to snack isn't the solution to reduce calories, as this can actually lead to weight gain, because when you restrict food intake your brain starts obsessing about it, and you're more likely to eat more food, and quicker," adds Beames.

So, how can we enjoy snacking while watching TV, minus the health risks?

"Be mindful of the fact that this is a vulnerable eating time where you're more susceptible to mindless eating. Once you're aware of this you can begin making a few small but significant behavioural changes," says Beames.

Press pause on the TV if you wish to snack and eat without the distractions.

When affected emotionally we usually eat quickly, so slow down your eating, savour every bite and enjoy it.

If you usually eat chips from the packet or ice-cream directly from the tub, put some in a small bowl and stick to that portion.   

Plan ahead and make sure you have healthy snack options such as nuts, low-sugar Greek-style yoghurt with berries, fruit and vegetables.

Control your level of eating to a maximum of 800 kilojoules and don't go back to the kitchen between episodes.