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The problem with watching too many cooking shows

Try this at home, just maybe not too often. (Food Network/AP)
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Food television has been something of a revelation. As Americans cook less and less, they seem compelled to watch people cook more and more. The mouthwatering viewer experience — which features cooking shows and competitions, food travel adventures and other gustatory escapades — has captivated people around the country.

The Food Network, the genre's most coveted brand, alone gathers an average audience of more than 1 million viewers each night. And it's just one of a growing number of networks that routinely feature series about food and eating. Chefs — some professionally trained, others less formally practiced — are increasingly bringing new, exciting and delicious culinary ideas into living rooms.

Mostly women watch these shows, often to learn specific cooking skills. But when people watch more of these food shows on television, it turns out they're also gaining more weight, according to a new study by researchers at Cornell University. And they're even more likely to gain weight if they also cook.

"There's a pretty clear interaction between watching these types of shows and cooking less healthy foods," said Lizzy Pope, a professor at the University of Vermont, and one of the study's authors. "People who watch cooking shows are more likely to have a higher BMI [body mass index] than any other group."

To gauge the effect of cooking shows, Pope and her colleagues surveyed more than 500 women of different heights and weights between the ages of 20 and 35. The participants were chosen randomly and had a range of characteristics.

In all, the researchers noted 14 different ways in which the participants' cooking habits were influenced, including health Web sites, YouTube, magazines, newspapers, cooking shows, cooking blogs, and dietitians. But no source of inspiration did more to expand waistlines than food television.

"Watching cooking shows is the only one we found to be associated with a higher body mass index," Pope said.

There's a chance that what the study uncovered is that people who are less healthy, at least according to their BMI, are more likely to watch cooking shows — the study, after all, stopped short of proving causality. But that's unlikely, according to Pope, who argues that watching these shows is probably leading people to eat less healthily and, as a result, carry a a few extra pounds.

The reason is largely tied to a phenomenon called social norming, in which people grow to assume that something is normal that shouldn't be. In this case, that something is regularly cooking and eating recipes prepared in a heavier fashion, loaded with butter and other fats. 

There are plenty of examples of shows and chefs that have gone to lengths to encourage healthy eating habits. Jamie Oliver, for one, made a documentary about the unhealthy food schools often serve children. But cooking shows, by and large, feature foods that aren't actually all that healthy (see Paula Deen). Television personalities, meanwhile, are authority figures that shape how viewers model their behavior. If people see a caloric dish being made by a celebrity they revere, they are likely to try to recreate that dish at home, Pope says.

"Watching chefs prepare indulgent dishes on TV, watching a famous host enjoy over-the-top foods with other people all over the country, or viewing others’ social media food pictures and recipes might suggest a social norm for preparing these types of foods," the study notes.

The problem, however, isn't so much that people are cooking like the chefs they see on TV, but that they're cooking too often like the chefs they watch labor away in the kitchen.

"I'm torn, because as a dietitian I want to encourage people to cook at home, but just because you're cooking at home doesn't mean you're cooking healthy things and are going to lose weight," Pope said. "Restaurant quality meals really shouldn't be eaten every day."