Do TV Cooking Shows Make Us Fat?

Mar 18, 2015
Originally published on March 18, 2015 1:37 pm

If you've ever watched Giada de Laurentiis make gooey chocolate-hazelnut spread or a rich carbonara pasta dish, you may have wondered: How can she cook like this and maintain her slim figure?

Well, sorry to say, but a new study published in the journal Appetite suggests that many of of us home cooks who watch cooking shows can't pull this off.

"Our main finding is that it seems that if you watch food television and then actually cook the recipes that you see, you're at risk for having a higher BMI [body mass index]," says study author Lizzy Pope, who's a researcher in nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont.

Pope, along with colleagues at Cornell University, surveyed about 500 women in their 20s and 30s. The researchers asked a range of questions about the women's cooking habits. And they documented the women's weight and height to calculate their BMIs.

"In terms of weight, those who watched cooking shows and cooked frequently from scratch had a mean weight of 164 lbs," according to the paper. By comparison, women who watched the shows but didn't cook much from scratch weighed, on average, about 153 pounds.

That's an 11-pound difference between the "doers" (the women watching and cooking) compared with the "viewers" (the women who watched but didn't cook).

"Being a doer," Pope says, "may put you at risk for packing on extra pounds."

This is not the first study to suggest that home cooking can potentially be bad for our waistlines — and perhaps our health.

As we've reported, a study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that the more time middle-aged women spent cooking at home, the more likely they were to develop symptoms of metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

And these findings challenge the going belief — put forth by advocates such at Michael Pollan — that home cooking, compared to eating out or buying prepared foods, is best.

But Pope says she doesn't want to turn people off to cooking: "As a dietitian, I want to encourage everyone to [cook at home] as often as possible."

But she says you've got to be mindful of how and what you cook. And you may not find inspiration for healthy cooking by watching TV cooking shows.

"If you're just watching Pioneer Woman, or Giada at Home, or Barefoot Contessa — which are great shows that I sometimes watch to relax — they're not necessarily portraying healthy recipes," Pope says.

Take, for instance, de Laurentiis' chocolate hazelnut pie, which is loaded with butter.

"Butter in your kitchen is still butter," Pope says. "And it has the same calories as if you ate it in a restaurant meal."

And, please, we're not trying to pick on de Laurentiis. She's been asked about her rich recipes and her own eating habits. In one interview, she said it's the No. 1 question from fans of her show.

"And the answer is," de Laurentiis is quoted as saying, "I eat a little bit of everything and not a lot of anything. Everything in moderation."

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If you're a fan of TV cooking shows, your viewing habits may be shaping your eating habits. According to researchers, that could be bad for your waistline. NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you've ever watched an episode of "Giada," the fashionable foodie on the Food Network, you may have noticed that she makes a lot of rich pasta dishes and chocolate desserts.


GIADA DE LAURENTIIS: I'm melting half a cup of chocolate chips for my homemade chocolate-hazelnut spread.

AUBREY: Now, Giada seems to be able to cook like this and stay thin. But a new study shows many home cooks who follow TV cooking shows can't seem to pull this off.

LIZZY POPE: It's a bit of an anomaly, right?

AUBREY: That's study author Lizzy Pope. She's a registered dietitian who teaches at the University of Vermont. As a fan of cooking shows, she started to wonder whether they were influencing people's cooking and body weight. So she surveyed about 500 women, asking detailed questions about their habits, and she documented their weight.

POPE: Our main finding of the study is that it seems that if you watch food television and then actually cook the recipes, you might be at risk for packing on a few extra pounds.

AUBREY: On average, about 11 pounds compared to women who watched the shows but were not in the habit of cooking at home.

POPE: We were somewhat surprised because there's also a lot of research that shows that cooking at home is healthier for you.

AUBREY: There's even data to suggest that the more often people eat out, the heavier they are. But Pope says she doesn't want this to turn people off home cooking.

POPE: It is great to cook at home, and as a dietitian, I want to encourage everyone to do that as much as possible.

AUBREY: But she says you've got to be mindful of how and what you cook.

POPE: Butter in your own kitchen is still butter, and it's still going have the same calories as it would have if you were getting it from a restaurant meal.

AUBREY: And you probably won't find much inspiration for lighter fare on the cooking shows.

POPE: If you're just watching, like, "Pioneer Woman" or "Giada" or "Barefoot Contessa," which are such great shows - and sometimes I watch them to relax - they are not necessarily portraying healthy recipes.

AUBREY: It seems rich comfort foods might just work better as entertainment. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.