THURSDAY, Jan. 27, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- David Burley was excited about a new restaurant opening in his small Louisiana town, where vacant storefronts have become the norm as the recession lingers.
But Burley, an assistant professor of sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University, wasn't thrilled that the eatery would be serving heaping helpings of flat-screened TVs -- one in every booth -- along with its family fare.
The deluge of televisions in American restaurants in recent years makes a mockery of the quaint 1950s vignette of families eating dinner on folding tray tables in front of the Ed Sullivan show. Instead of uniting families, experts say, today's ubiquitous screens are threatening people's health, leading them to eat more of the wrong foods and eroding the socializing that makes mealtime special.
"It's a really hot topic," said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Project EAT. "People are really struggling with this."
Several studies over the past decade have linked prolonged TV watching with obesity, which affects one-third of adult Americans. Scientists analyzing the Nurses' Health Study in 2003 looked at 50,000 women aged 30 to 55, finding their odds of obesity rising 23 percent and their risk of type 2 diabetes rising 14 percent for every additional two hours of television time they logged.
In 2007, Neumark-Sztainer's study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior indicated that teens in families that watched TV while eating together had a lower-quality diet than children of families that turned off the tube while eating together. Teens watching television ate fewer vegetables, calcium-rich food and grains; they also consumed more soft drinks than their peers who ate meals without the TV on.
And a 2010 study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition showed that school kids who spent prolonged hours in front of television tend to be overweight or obese. A national sample of adolescents indicated that 64 percent of 11- to 18-year-olds had the TV on during meals.
One reason for the weight gain, Burley says, is that people tend to eat more slowly -- and consume less food -- when they are not glued to the tube.
Television's impact on families' emotional health is perhaps harder to quantify.
"The idea of the family meal is to interact with each other," said Neumark-Sztainer, also a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. "I always say the nutritional value of the food may not be the best when you go out to eat, but the social interactions can [be valuable.] So if you're getting rid of that, it's sort of a shame."
Family meals -- without TV -- strengthen family ties and the need for connection. Burley pointed out that kids also learn important principles of human interaction at family meals - listening to others and taking turns conversing, for example - and this opportunity is negated when everyone is focused on a screen.
He challenges people to ask businesses to turn off the television, knowing it may be an uphill battle -- but a worthwhile one.
"I think this has implications for how we want our society to operate in the larger realm," Burley said. "We love to go out to eat. To go out and be taken away by the TV, we lose sight of the cultural pleasure we used to get by just going out to eat."
If we turn the TV off, he added, "we can engage others and pay attention to our food. It gets closer to what we all claim our values to be."
Minnesota Public Radio has more about the importance of family meals.