• 09.04.14

Your Love Of Action Movies Is Why You’re Fat

Watching Michael Bay’s 2005 thriller The Island made test subjects get awful hungry.

Your Love Of Action Movies Is Why You’re Fat
[Transformers 3 Still: Paramount Pictures]

For years, scientists have known that watching TV can inspire mindless eating, the traditional American pastime of shoving a waterfall of cheeseballs down your gullet before your body realizes what it’s doing. But not all TV programming is made equally. A new study from Cornell University’s famed Food and Brand Lab has found that action movies might make people snack harder, faster, and stronger than other kinds of TV.


When college students were subjected to Michael Bay’s 2005 thriller The Island and others watched talk-show host Charlie Rose, Michael Bay-watchers wolfed down 98% more M&M’s, cookies, carrots, and grapes than the other students. Even when the researchers shut off the soundtrack to Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor flouncing around expensive pyrotechnics, The Island’s viewers still consumed 46% more calories than the Charlie Rose group.

“We were struck by how much of a difference it could make,” post-doctoral researcher Aner Tal says. “Another thing we saw is that there were increases in consumption across the board. People just ate more of everything, which attests more to the fact that this is mindless eating; you’re just eating whatever’s in front of you.”

Tal and his colleagues, who published their work in JAMA Internal Medicine late last month, suggest that the super-fast visual and audio splicing in action movies might invite more distraction from internal cues–like “I’m full!”–than a slower-paced educational program. At the same time, the study didn’t measure how subjective tastes might also play a role: If you’re not really into Michael Bay, but find Charlie Rose’s interview style scintillating, you might snack more while watching the latter. Finding out where subjective TV tastes deviate from objective snacking cues marks the next phase in Tal’s research.

Another interesting line of inquiry: Tal’s male test subjects showed more willingness to chow down across all categories, but their eating also showed the most extreme increases during the Michael Bay movie. The study itself doesn’t point to the reason behind the difference, but Tal notes that some research suggests people can sublimate other human needs through eating. Which means what, exactly? “If some [actors] turn you on, you might eat more,” Tal says. (So, depending on your type, Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor’s A-list symmetrical faces could be making you fat, too.)

Tal’s work at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which has pioneered research into the psychology of eating and advocated for smaller snack packaging, also involves translating these findings into helpful suggestions. So even though Michael Bay movies might be ruining America our arteries if we eat endless mini pizza bagels while watching Transformers 4, watching action movies might also trick your body into eating your daily recommended dose of vegetables. Just bring a bag of broccoli to the theater instead.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.