On Oreos and Ultraman

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

: 247 lbs in February of 2019

When I was a kid, eating and TV went hand in hand. I remember sitting there on our worn red leather sofa with a full package of Oreos watching reruns of Ultraman on television. I must have been 11 or 12, say, because this was soon after we first got cable television. That was the new technology of the age in the 1970s, and it was a lovely change from the fuzzy, foggy, horizontal lines of broadcast television. 

I’m sure I watched plenty of things besides Ultraman, but he’s who sticks in my memory. The show was a schlocky Japanese program built on the premise that humongous, Godzilla-sized monsters are appearing so often in Japan that the authorities have created a special anti-monster defense agency named the Science Patrol. Despite the patrol’s cool, sci-fi weaponry, they’re constantly out of their league and in need of saving by an immense silver alien they called Ultraman. 

Somehow, Ultraman is the secret identity of one of the members of the Science Patrol, a guy named Hayata. I don’t remember exactly how that worked, and I doubt there was a lot of logic to it. The real point was to see Ultraman using his ray powers and martial arts prowess to beat up big ugly monsters who were clearly other people dressed up in a wide variety of schlocky but wonderfully baroque rubber suits. 

There was nothing subtle about it. Ultraman was children’s wish fulfillment of the most basic kind.

A Kid’ll Eat The Middle of An Oreo First

So there I was as a pre-teen unscrewing Oreo cookies, licking the “frosty cream” in the middle before chomping down the “chocolate cookies outsides.” Yes, there was a whole commercial jingle on how kids should eat Oreos, a song followed by the lines “Aren’t Oreo kids lucky? Aren’t Oreo moms wonderful?”

This was some serious, circular brainwashing back in the day. Kids watched their favorite shows while eating sugary cookies that their parents bought them while watching commercials showing versions of themselves eating Oreo cookies provided (and therefore approved) by their “wonderful” moms.

And so habits are formed (or more like forged, given their strength) during those impressionable years. Part of me still associates sugary or salty crunchy foods (yes, sometimes my snack of choice was Lay’s potato chips: “no one can east just one”) with the joys of escaping into fantasy TV shows in which small, mostly helpless people suddenly become larger-than-life, powerful heroes who save the world from legions of mysterious monsters.

It was only decades later, as I wrote down these memories in my diet journal, that I fully recognized the strength of these psychological bonds between eating and watching TV. Television allows one to eat almost unconsciously while engaged in the low-rent raptures of kid-show consumption.

You Don’t Need to Be an Academic to Get It

It doesn’t take B.F. Skinner to figure all this out but, once it sank in, I started to investigate the concept. It turns out there’s plenty of research on this array of topics: food, television, advertisements, etc.

For example, after much statistical analysis, one paper succinctly states:

Exposure to television during childhood (up to 12 years old) was directly related to greater endorsement of the messages in unhealthy food advertising and long-term unhealthy diet, even after controlling for parental mediation. In the absence of a ban on unhealthy food advertising, the most prudent advice for parents may be to restrict the amount of commercial television that their children watch, beginning at an early age.

“The Relationship between Television Viewing and Unhealthy Eating: Implications for Children and Media Interventions”

Just to be clear, however, my feeling is that advertisements only play a secondary role in the links between food and TV. It is the act of eating foods in front of a television (or any other media-playing device) that truly forges the habit.

No More Eating in Front of the Boob Tube

And so it was that I pledged not to eat at all while watching television. This not only applies to snack foods but to any foods at all, including meals. The purpose was to break this lifetime of conditioning.

Since I made that pledge, I’ve broken it multiple times. As I said, it was a habit not just formed but forged. But keeping my commitments is a topic I’ll cover in other posts. For now, just let me say that this pledge has since become among my best strategies for maintaining a healthier weight.

Feature image from Otakon 2012 cosplay by Piotrus