Do you ever find yourself scarfing down breakfast in the car on your way to work? Squeezing in lunch at your work desk? Swiping through your social media during your mid-afternoon snack? Or regularly setting up TV dinners?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you're probably a Distracted Eater. Don't worry. You're not alone! In our fast-paced society steeped in visual distractions left and right, it is hard to give our meal and snack times the 100% focus they really deserve. For most people, especially those who rely on multi-tasking, giving your meal 100% of your focus is a treat, an indulgence, a luxury, or a challenge. Unfortunately, many studies are showing the number of distracted eaters out there is on the rise. Since many are currently working from home or engaging in remote, online schooling, the risk is even higher. Many studies are also showing how big of an impact distracted eating has on food intake. Finally, one recent study has also shown a potential psychological reason for why distracted eating is a trap. Before we get into that, though, why should we even care about stopping distracted eating in the first place? Is it really that harmful? What's wrong with trying to be more "productive" by multi-tasking during mealtimes?
PROs and CONs of Distracted Eating
There actually is no one, true PRO to distracted eating. However, one might be inclined to say increased productivity is a PRO for distracted eating. Is this really a PRO, though?
To put this into perspective a bit, let us consider just how increased our productivity really is by eating distractedly:
- For one thing, if we do end up eating more than we really need while distracted, how will this affect our energy levels and productivity later on in the day?
- How will potentially excess consumption from distracted eating affect the amount of overall time we may need to dedicate to physical activity and exercise?
- How will this affect the time and effort we are already putting into keeping our diets healthy and portioned at other times of the day? We may end up countering all our efforts and then undoing all that hard work at other times during the day.
The truth is, distracted eating makes it hard for us to tune into our body. It can interfere with fullness signals getting sent to the brain, reduce our memory of how much we ate, and interfere with or distract us from the joy and satisfaction that comes from the eating experience. This, in turn, can lead to overeating past our fullness cue. Most of us are already aware of the potential results of overeating.
Why does it happpen?
But why, you may ask, does eating something while doing another task make it so difficult to notice how full you truly are?
A study published in the journal Appetite suggests it might be due to a theory known as the Load Theory of Attention. This is the idea that a person has a limited or set amount of sensory information they can actually be aware of. Once this limit is exceeded, different sources of sensory information are not fully noticed or perceived.
In their study, a group of 120 subjects were given lower and higher calorie drinks and tasks that involved either a small or great amount of attention.
Those who were completely engaged in a demanding task ate the same amount of food regardless of whether they just drank a high or low calorie drink. Those who were engaged in an activity that did not demand as much attention were more mindful about adjusting the amount they snacked on after drinking a high calorie drink. In fact, they mindfully adjusted their intake by eating 45% less of their snack after drinking a high calorie drink than after drinking a low calorie drink.
What is the point? This research shows the possibility that when our senses are being used and distracted by multiple activities (a demanding situation), the brain may filter out some of the information it is given. If we refer back to the Load Theory of Attention, this is the point at which the brain is overhwlemed with sensory information past its limit and, thus, filters out some information, possibly such as how full we are.
How to Overcome Distracted Eating
You may not be able to start eating every single meal and snack from here on out without a single distraction. Let's be realistic, life happens.
However, it is realistic to set a small, achievable goal. You can start by trying some of the following tips:
- Start by picking just ONE meal or snack that you will give 100% of your attention to each day. This might mean you need to turn off the TV, put the phone away, eat before or after driving, or stop the work you're doing.
- It may help to set up a calendar reminder on your phone, indicating the specific meal you will be eating without distraction.
- It may help to put your phone on airplane mode or "Do Not Disturb" mode during your meal or snack.
- As you begin your meal or snack, start focusing on the senses, such as how the food looks, smells, tastes, or how the texture feels. Consider, too, whether this is a positive or negative experience and try to focus on what exactly it is you are enjoying (or not enjoying).
- If the activity that would normally distract you is absolutely imperative, try to begin it only about 5-7 minutes after you being your meal or snack. Give yourself at least five minutes to focus on the meal. Then, you can beging your other activity while simultaneously finishing off your meal.
- As this becomes a habitual matter, try increasing the number of meals or snacks you apply these principles to, increasing the number of days each week you do it, or the amount of time you devote to 100% focus before starting your activity during mealtime.
University of Sussex. (2020, August 12). TV-watching snackers beware: You won't notice you're full if your attention is elsewhere. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 29, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200812144029.htm
Jenny Morris, Chi Thanh Vi, Marianna Obrist, Sophie Forster, Martin R. Yeomans. Ingested but not perceived: Response to satiety cues disrupted by perceptual load. Appetite, 2020; 104813 DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2020.104813
Morris, J., Yeomans, M. R., & Forster, S. (2020). Testing a load theory framework for food-related cognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000786