Newswise — Television has become a staple in the modern American diet, and the dinner table increasingly has been replaced with the flat screen in the living room, a Southeastern Louisiana University sociologist suggests.

The trend is not a good one, claims David Burley, Southeastern assistant professor of sociology.

“The trend is especially evident when eating out at restaurants,” Burley said. “More and more, it’s rare to walk into a sit-down restaurant and not see a television in some corner playing ESPN, CNN or some other televised program.”

The breaking away from traditional behaviors at the dinner table to watch television has left some, like Burley, concerned.

“Everywhere you eat, you see a TV,” he said. “I ask my students if they have ever been in a public place where there is a television and tried not too look at it. I know that it takes a lot of mental effort not to look. They all smile and nod knowingly.”

He noted the oddity of restaurants striving for uniqueness to attract customers, while maintaining this trait. New restaurants, he said, frequently boast about the sheer number and size of televisions that are available for viewing while you eat.

“We lose a lot when we are busy staring at the television, and one of those things is an appreciation for the food we are eating,” Burley said. “In Louisiana we are known for our food. If you ask anyone who lives in, or has ever visited Louisiana what he or she enjoys about the state, cuisine will always make the list. Our culture of cooking and eating is something that has given us an appreciation for the mealtime tradition, but it’s a tradition at risk.”

Burley said there are also social aspects of eating that are lost when we tune into television. He cites Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food,” who claims that eating together is where we first learn democratic principles.

“The dinner table is where many of us learn the art of conversation and basic levels of politeness, knowing when to speak and when to listen,” Burley said. “Friends and family sharing stories and debating the topic of the day are all part of creating an atmosphere of intimacy and sharing. We learn from others and in the process enhance ourselves; these are the ways we create the good parts of society.”

There are also health concerns associated with this trend. Burley said watching TV draws attention away from what we are eating and how much, pointing out that people tend to eat more when watching TV than when conversing with others.

“The concern is we tend to eat more when we are taken away by the television,” Burley said. “This is not a good practice in a society that has a growing obesity epidemic, as well as dramatic rises in obesity-related diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, which The Centers for Disease Control predicts one of three people will have by 2050.”

While obesity is not caused by having a television in a restaurant or eating around the TV, it certainly is not helping the cause, he maintains. It is the mindfulness of what, how much, and how fast we are eating that is hampered.

“We tend to eat more slowly and less when we dine and interact with others as opposed to eating alone, which we are very likely to do while watching television,” Burley said. “Our bodies digest food and extract nutrients more when we eat slowly. It’s simply healthier to eat with others without watching a screen.”

Burley challenges people to “ask businesses if they will turn off the television.” He looks forward to a day when restaurants will ask you to enjoy their food as well as enjoy each other without the distraction of a television in every corner.

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