Not a Julia Child in the bunch. (We love you Julia!)
“Top Chef,” “The Next Big Food Network Star,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Dining Downunder,” “Celebrity Chefs,” “MasterChef,” “Two Fat Ladies,” “America’s Next Best Restaurant,” “The Stir,” “Iron Chef” … the list goes on and on.
Yet still it seems America is far from full of food-centered television shows, with new programs continuously being added to the television smorgasbord.
So with hundreds of hours of programming devoted each week solely to the subject of cooking, creating, entertaining and eating, could the food TV onslaught be contributing to the country’s obesity problem?
“While many popular cooking shows feature foods and recipes that are high in fat and calories, this does not necessarily mean they are worsening our nation’s obesity problem,” New York-based dietitian and creator of the F-Factor Diet, Tanya Zuckerbrot, told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “These shows are cultivating better informed customers – from preparation to plating. TV chefs are inspiring legions of people who previously wouldn’t dare step into the kitchen and more folks are opting for a home cooked meal instead of fast food. This is significant considering that the average restaurant entrée has 60 percent more calories than the same dish created at home.”
However, Marlene Schwartz PhD, Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said that while no formal studies have been conducted on these shows, she thinks that the overall impact in the short-term is that they increase one’s hunger levels. More importantly, watching a lot of television in general is one of the strongest predictors of obesity in children.
“There has been some discussion about whether the effect of TV watching on body weight is due to the fact that it’s a sedentary behavior or because of exposure to more commercials for unhealthy foods,” Schwartz said. “Experiments have been done with children and adults that found that when you watch a show with food commercials (as opposed to commercials for something else) you eat more of the snacks that are in front of you. The theory is that when you see food on TV, it triggers thoughts of eating in your mind, and increases the chance that you are going to reach for a snack. So, based on those studies, watching cooking shows is going to make you think about eating and wanting to get something to eat more than while watching other shows are about something else.”
With the exception a few shows like Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” and “Dr. Oz,” health foods rarely make appearances in the TV foodie movement. However, Zuckerbrot is hopeful that more shows will start to sprout up centered on nutrition-based cooking, with a particular focus on feeding children in a way that both tastes good and is good for you.
“Educating people on the importance of certain foods and allowing them to understand that a nutritious meal does not have to sacrifice taste can empower viewers to make better food choices and assume ownership of what they put into their mouths,” she said.
Nonetheless, there are many other important topics touched on by mainstream television chef-centric shows.
Amid a period of economic gloom, cooking shows such as “Ten Dollar Dinners With Melissa d'Arabian” seek to tantalize the taste buds while maintaining frugality, while other shows like “30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray” help those leading busy modern lives still eat well.
Several other shows are dedicated exclusively to bringing to the boil international fare. So do programs such as “Lidia’s Italy,” and “Made in Spain with Jose Andres” diversify America’s palate and foster a more open-minded and worldly nation that most people may not otherwise be exposed to?
“When cooking, many people tend to stick with familiar recipes and techniques but learning about different cuisines not only expands your palate but introduces different and healthy tips,” Zuckerbrot said. “You may not have ever visited Thailand, but you can become an expert at cooking Thai noodles.”
And it seems America’s obsession with culinary-related shows stems from the old idiom that food, quite simply, is love.
“There is something wholesome about cooking shows, it strikes a chord with the natural desire people have for intimacy. Home cooking, even if unhealthy, makes people feel like they’re loved and connected in a real way, a part of something unifying and joyous,” explained author, certified nutritionist and founder of DetoxTheWorld.com, Natalia Rose. “Top it off with the natural entertainment value of creating something in real time, the obvious visual appeal and some easy, fun kitchen banter and you have all the elements of great broadcast television rolled into one.”