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.
SOURCES: David Burley, Ph.D., assistant
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