Why Eating While Distracted Can Make You Fat
BY: Susan C. Male, R.D.
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.
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.
More on what causes heartburn from our sponsor
Recipe of the Week
- Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt because it takes 3 to 4 times more milk to make it. Celebrate June Dairy Month with Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries.
- Bok Choy, also known as Chinese cabbage or pak choi, has been grown in China for over 6,000 years. Choose firm stalks, avoiding brown spots and wilted leaves, and add to stir-fry.
- Apple skin is full of fiber & Alzheimer’s-disease-fighting antioxidants -- so eat it! Refrigerate in a plastic bag away from foods with strong odors; they absorb odors easily.
- Collards, mustard greens and kale are available in bags, pre-washed & chopped -- so they’re easy to steam or saute! Eat your greens as a side dish or in quesadillas, soups & stews.
- Avocados are rich in 20 nutrients and great beyond guacamole. Chop for a ham, egg and cheese wrap; slice for a deli roast beef sandwich; cube and toss into linguini and shrimp.
- Black-eyed Peas: Fresh, canned and frozen varieties are all nutrient-rich options -- making it easier to eat your daily veggies. Rinse and drain canned peas to cut down on salt.
- Ugli Fruit, beautiful benefits! Peel & eat for fiber & vitamin C. Choose fruit heavy for size; dents normal and color not important. Store on counter 5 days or refrigerate 2 weeks.
- Radicchio, also known as Italian chicory, is high in vitamin K for bone health. Great in salads: Choose bright, tender leaves; avoid brown or limp ones. Refrigerate up to 3 days.
- Cherimoya, a high-fiber tropical fruit, tastes like a mix of strawberry and mango. Choose firm, unblemished fruit, cut in wedges and spoon out creamy flesh.
- Kale in lentil soup is a double dose of New Year’s luck! Round-shaped lentils symbolize coins; kale, paper money. Both are packed with antioxidants for a year of healthy fortune.
- Tea is native to China, but Americans invented tea bags and first drank iced tea at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Enjoy hot and reap health benefits from both black & green tea.
- Dried Plums (formerly prunes) may help prevent cancer and decrease inflammation. Slice fruit, stuff with cheese and walnuts, and wrap in prosciutto to make quick party appetizers.
- Oatmeal month is officially January. Cook breakfast oatmeal with 1% milk for extra protein, calcium and vitamin D -- or enjoy whole-grain oatmeal raisin cookies as a smart snack.
- Spices and herbs add antioxidants to every dish. One tsp. ground cinnamon contains as many antioxidants as 1/2 cup blueberries; 1 tsp. yellow curry as many as 1/2 cup red grapes.
- Fish, the best source of omega-3 fats for heart and brain health, may even help ward off depression. Mix canned white tuna, salmon and sardines for an omega-rich seafood salad.
- Orange juice is filled with immune-boosting nutrients that fight colds and the flu: vitamins C and B6, folate, potassium and magnesium. Choose 100% juice with no added sugar.
- Walnuts are a significant source of plant-based omega-3 fats. These fats -- also in ground flaxseed, canola oil and edamame -- provide many heart-healthy benefits.
- Pear, apple and Asian pear slices + yogurt-based dips = winning strategy for game-day parties. Combine Greek vanilla yogurt with chocolate-hazelnut spread for a fast, healthy dip.
- Pumpkin and sweet potato -- fresh, mashed or canned -- adds disease-fighting antioxidants to waffles and pancakes. Use whole-wheat flour to double your fiber and nutrient intake.
- Snack smart to achieve weight loss goals. Choose fast and fully edible fruits like grapes, apples, persimmon and kiwi. Yes, fuzzy kiwi skin is edible! Simply wash and rub dry.
What kind of water do you usually drink?