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Better eating in the age of distraction

Posted Apr 28 2013 11:22pm
Have you noticed it too? Many more people than ever before seem to be multi-tasking with their food. People are sipping on take-away coffee while browsing supermarket aisles; munching take-away while driving; eating dinner in front of the TV or internet. Actually sitting down purely to enjoy a meal or snack is starting to seem unusual. But multi-tasking with food could be one of the major causes behind the obesity epidemic, because mindless eating becomes forgotten eating.

You may have noticed the effect being distracted has on the amount you eat; if you sit down to watch a movie with a big bowl of popcorn, a surprise may await you at the movie’s end. Somehow, you ate the entire bowl. But you don’t remember eating it, or feel satisfied. If you had sat down at the table with that same bowl of popcorn, and ate it consciously, would you have been able to get through all of it without thinking “I’ve had enough!”

Turns out that more than a few scientists have also noticed the effect distraction has on eating, and researched the extent to which being focused on your food can influence how much you consume. The results are interesting to consider if you want to manage your food intake more effectively (and, I suggest, enjoy your food more).

A review published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (study is here ) examined the effect of being aware of what you eat. Their findings aren’t all that surprising if you have experienced the amazing-disappearing-bowl-of-popcorn-with-movie phenomenon, but will be really useful if you want to control your weight and food intake more effectively. 

The study had two major conclusions: First, that eating while distracted will increase your intake of food right then, but also how much you eat later. That means that if you eat with your mind focused elsewhere, like TV, you’re likely to eat more than you intended, and you’re likely to eat more later too (perhaps because your brain didn’t get a chance to register how much you ate, so your appetite is awry).

The second major finding was that enhancing your recollection of how much you ate reduces the amount you eat next time. To me, what this means is that if you’re eating a meal while seated, using a plate, you can look at the quantity on the plate and recognise how much you’re going to eat. The research also suggests that taking a moment after your meal to recall what you ate helps moderate your appetite too.

It all sounds sensible, and a good idea; but I can guarantee that choosing to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly is actually quite challenging; you’re changing a habit. But if you’re trying to manage your food intake better, why not try it out for a week and see what happens.

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