One of the reasons for the high rates of obesity and other health problems in the U.S., researchers think, is that people cook at home a lot less than they used to. Meals eaten out tend to be laden with more calories, more fat, and so on than those eaten at home. Cooking shows, write researchers Lizzy Pope, Lara Latimer, and Brian Wansink in an article in the journal Appetite, could help ameliorate this problem, but it’s not clear they do.
That’s because there are two possibilities for the effect these shows, which have surged in popularity in recent years, could have on viewers. “If watching cooking shows helps teach viewers skills to prepare healthful meals at home, then watching food TV might promote health (Clifford, Anderson, Auld, & Champ, 2009),” the researchers write. “Conversely, if the overconsumption and unhealthiness often portrayed help set cultural norms that reflect eating excess calories and fat, watching food TV might have a negative affect on one’s weight and health. Consistent with this view, a recent study performed in the United Kingdom, found that TV chefs’ recipes were high in fat, saturated fat, and sodium compared to the World Health Organization’s nutritional guidelines (Howard, Adams, & White, 2012). The TV recipes also contained more calories, protein, and fat than supermarket pre-prepared meals, which traditionally are not that nutritious either (Howard et al., 2012).”
To better understand the effects cooking shows have on viewers’ dietary habits, the researchers surveyed a group of 501 women between 20 and 25 years of age (they were interested in this age group because young women are still the most important “nutritional gatekeepers” for families) on their cooking, viewing, and recipe-gathering habits, as well as their height and weight, hoping that some potentially important correlations would pop out.
They found that among those who watch cooking shows, the more frequently a given survey respondent cooked, the higher their body-mass index was likely to be. For those who didn’t cook from scratch much, watching a cooking show wasn’t correlated with a higher BMI. Even though the sample group was a pretty narrow category of people, this is an interesting reversal of the usual weight-control advice that it’s better to cook at home: For this sample of women, at least, those who watched cooking shows were likely to be skinnier (or to have a lower BMI) if they didn’t follow those shows’ recipes. (The researchers didn’t detect this pattern with any other recipe source — blogs, magazines, etc.)
It could simply be the case that cooking shows, relying as they do on food-porn effects to keep viewers watching, are pushing unhealthier recipes. As the researchers note, “Although some cooking shows present healthy recipes, many others present more indulgent fare.” Maybe Anthony Bourdain had a point when he went off on Paula Deen.