Are foodie shows making us gain weight?

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesBy Alyssa Sparacino

Bam!
Just like that, food entertainment took over our televisions.

With last year's debut of the Cooking Channel-sister to the wildly popular Food Network-we now have two ways to access food TV around the clock. That's in addition to Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and countless niche programs ranging from the obscure Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern to the charming DC Cupcakes.

Flay, Batali, Ray, and Ramsay have become household names, and it's not hard to see why: Half of Americans watch food or cooking shows "very often" or "occasionally," according to a 2010 poll by Harris Interactive.

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All this talk about food may start your stomach growling-and that could be a problem. As the food-entertainment revolution has expanded, so have our waistbands. In the early 1990s, before the Food Network or Top Chef, 56% of Americans were overweight or obese. That number has since grown to 68%. Are these two trends somehow related?

An array of factors-unhealthy diets, too little physical activity, sedentary jobs, busy schedules-have conspired to promote widespread weight gain. "Our intake of calories has increased about 300 a day since the 1970s," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University, and the author of Nutrition & You: Core Concepts for Good Health. "We're eating more processed food and our environment is conducive to eating 24/7."

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Celebrity chefs aren't entirely to blame, of course. But our fascination with food TV may not be helping. Most hit cooking shows don't exactly focus on health food, and research suggests that being exposed to images of appetizing food can spur us to eat-and overeat.

Unhealthy recipes
If a recipe calls for tons of butter and cream, there's a good chance Paula Deen whipped it up. The silver-haired southern cook has become a Food Network star thanks to heart-stopping dishes such as Fried Butter Balls, which, as you might have guessed, are nothing more than butter and cream cheese coated in breadcrumbs and fried in oil.

Some of Deen's critics have suggested that fatty dishes such as these are contributing to unhealthy eating habits and obesity. When the chef appeared on The View to promote a new kid-oriented cookbook in 2009, for instance, cohost Barbara Walters confronted her about the nutritional content of some of the recipes.

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"Obesity is the number-one problem for kids today," Walters told Deen. "You tell kids to have cheesecake for breakfast! Doesn't it ever bother you that you're adding to this?" (Deen's reply? Kids should be taught moderation.)

There's no clear-cut evidence that the recipes featured on food shows are urging viewers to eat unhealthily, but it's a credible theory.

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Even though many people watch the shows for entertainment alone, others emulate the cooking they see on TV. Fifty-seven percent of people who watch cooking shows buy food as a "direct result" of something they've seen, the 2010 Harris poll found.

Likewise, viewers are flocking to the websites of their favorite star chefs for recipes. The Food Network's recipe-driven website attracts more than 8 million visitors per month, and Deen's website, Paula's Home Cooking, was the second most popular cable-network TV-show website in 2009.

Keep reading: Health.com: Are Foodie Shows Making Us Fat?