Distracted Eating

For most of human existence, eating has been a shared activity — something that friends, coworkers, families, and nomadic bands have done together. Along with food cultivation and preparation, it has also been an activity that demands a great deal of time and attention from a vast swath of the population. But over the centuries and especially just in the last few decades, food preparation and eating habits have changed dramatically for much of the world’s population — including most Americans. Fewer meals are prepared from scratch, fewer meals are shared with even one other person, and more people eat while trying to accomplish something else at the same time.

It’s well known that what people eat can have positive or negative health effects, but fewer people give as much thought to the potential effects of how they eat. A number of studies have shown, for example, that eating slowly can lead people to consume fewer calories without feeling less full. And a string of studies, including a new one, suggest that eating without distractions can also lead to longer-lasting fullness following a meal.

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The latest study, posted online by the journal Appetite, actually consisted of three different experiments conducted at the University of Birmingham in England. For the first experiment, as noted in a Daily Mail article on the study, 39 mostly lean, young women were randomly assigned to eat the same lunch in one of three groups: high-distraction, low-distraction, or no-distraction. For the high-distraction group, participants were offered cash incentives to play well at a computer game while eating lunch. For the low-distraction group, participants were told to play the game without any incentives, and for the no-distraction group they were simply told to eat. Later in the day, each participant had access to a plate of cookies, which was weighed before and after the person had access. Those who had been in the high-distraction group ate 69% more cookies, by weight, than those in the no-distraction group, and those in the low-distraction group ate 28% more.

For the second experiment, 63 similar participants were randomly assigned either to watch TV while eating lunch or simply to eat. Later on, those in the TV group ate 19% more cookies from the plate in front of them than those in the just-eating group. For the third experiment, 45 participants were again split into three groups. The first group heard an audio recording instructing them to imagine watching themselves eat their lunch. The second group was asked to imagine watching soccer superstar David Beckham eat lunch while they were eating, and the third group heard no recording at all and ate their lunch in silence. Later on, those in the self-focused group ate far fewer cookies than those in the no-audio group, and those in the watching-David-Beckham group also ate slightly fewer cookies than those heard no recording.

Together, these three experiments show that distractions during meals — either active in the case of computer games, or passive in the form of TV — can lead to more snacking later on, most likely because the memory of eating affects how long we stay satisfied by a meal. Furthermore, focusing on the experience of eating can lead to less snacking than simply eating without thinking about the experience. Paying more attention to food, it turns out, may lead us to eat less of it.

Where do your eating experiences typically fall on the distraction continuum — do you watch TV or read while eating, do you simply eat, or do you tend to really savor the eating process? Does your behavior vary depending on whether you’re eating alone, or how much effort you put into the meal you’re eating? Have you noticed that you stay full longer after particular meals based on how you ate, rather than what you ate? Have you noticed any blood glucose changes as a result? Would you rather spend more time preparing and eating meals with other people, or are you content eating alone, with or without a distraction? Leave a comment below!