Why Eating While Distracted Can Make You Fat

Live Right Live Well: Diet

By Susan C. Male, R.D. for Live Right Live Well

Why Eating While Distracted Can Make You Fat

What did you eat during your last meal? Can’t remember? Uh, oh -- that’s not a good sign for your waistline. According to a recent study conducted at the University of Bristol in the U.K., if you don’t pay attention while you’re eating, your body may actually “forget” that you’ve eaten -- and crave more food later.

In the study, 22 people ate lunch while playing Solitaire on the computer. A different set of 22 people ate the same lunch with no distractions. Thirty minutes later, both groups were offered cookies while being quizzed on their memory. The group distracted by the computer game ate twice as many cookies as the undistracted group. The distracted group also had much more trouble remembering foods in the order in which they were offered.

While plenty of research has shown that people eat more while watching television, this new study shows there is an insidious double-whammy effect that happens not only during the meal, but after it as well. Why?

The Importance of Mindful Eating
According to Jeffrey M. Brunstrom, study leader and researcher in behavioral nutrition, making a mental memory of the foods you eat affects your actual sensations of hunger and how much you eat later on. Being distracted impairs your brain’s memory encoding. And if you don’t remember the specifics of eating, your feelings of fullness seem to be less and your appetite increases. In other words, if you don’t pay attention to what you’re eating -- because you’re distracted by the computer or TV, or even engrossed in conversation -- you may end up overeating both at the time you’re distracted and later in the day.

To help yourself eat more mindfully and curb overeating, try the following:

  • When eating, just eat. No watching TV, no playing computer games, no surfing the Internet, no checking email, no reading the newspaper. You get the idea.
  • Eat at a table with a place setting. Making a meal seem like a meal will help you remember that you ate an actual meal and didn’t just nosh on a bite or two.
  • If you’re eating with family or friends and the conversation turns intriguing, intense or heated, pause occasionally to focus on your fork.
  • Need we say it? Don't eat while driving!

More Ways to Eat More Healthfully
Mindful eating is just one example of the way in which how we eat can be as important as what we eat. Other ways to eat more healthfully include:

Pace yourself. If you eat too fast, your body doesn’t have time to register that your hunger has been satisfied. Give your brain time to catch up to your mouth so you don’t overeat.

Stick to regular mealtimes and snacks. Skipping breakfast or depriving yourself can cause you to overeat later.

Eat your biggest meal in the middle of the day. Some studies show that food eaten later in the day is metabolized more slowly, resulting in extra unburned calories.

Avoid eating right before bedtime. Not only do you not need the extra calories before you sleep, but chowing down two or three hours before bedtime increases the likelihood that it will come back to haunt you in the form of heartburn pain.

So, the next time you grab a bite, think not only about what you’re eating, but also how you’re eating it. Focus on the flavors, aromas, colors and textures, appreciating the entire sensory experience. You’ll enjoy every bite more -- and it just might help you keep off those extra pounds too.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/Alex_Doubovitsky

Susan C. Male is a registered dietitian and freelance nutrition and health writer. She is the co-author of Foods for Better Health and the former editor of the Environmental Nutrition newsletter. Male has also written articles for Family Circle, Redbook, Child and American Health. Susan is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.

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