by Nicole Witham, B.S.

During the work week, I hastily eat breakfast while sitting at my desk checking my email and talking to co-workers. And when I eat dinner at home, I would love to say I am eating at my kitchen table without distraction – but in reality, I am eating at the coffee table with my laptop open or TV on. Occasionally (okay, more than occasionally), I also have my cell phone in hand or next to my plate. If you are eating a meal or snack while reading this, or have been to a restaurant recently and noticed the glow of a cell phone screen at the neighboring table, you can probably relate to my situation.

As unrealistic as it sounds to be mindful of every bite of food I eat, sometimes I wonder how my distracted eating habits are affecting my overall food consumption and hunger cues. As it turns out, research consistently demonstrates that the more distracted individuals are while they eat, the more calories they are likely to consume at both current and future meal times.

An article recently published in Appetite highlights the effects of distracted eating on future snack intake. In the study, participants were divided into high-distraction, low-distraction, and control groups. All groups were given the same 400 calorie lunch, but the high-distraction group was told to eat lunch while playing an incentivized computer game; the low-distraction group was told to eat lunch while playing a computer game that did not provide an incentive; and the control group ate lunch with no distraction. A few hours later, researchers presented participants with cookies to snack on and asked the participants to rate how vividly they remembered their lunches from earlier in the day. Results indicate that the highly distracted participants ate significantly more cookies than those participants in the control group. The highly distracted participants also performed the poorest when asked to recall the order in which they ate their lunch foods and the vividness of their eating experience.

Previous studies corroborate the theory presented in the recent Appetite article – watching TV, listening to music, even eating around others increases the amount of food consumed compared to eating without any of these distractors. Which begs the question – to combat the obesity crisis, should we all be eating alone and in silence? Well, no. Eating has always been, and will always be, a highly social activity, and one that is at the mercy of our external environment. While big-picture work is necessary to eradicate our obesogenic environment, promising research indicates that training individuals to eat mindfully reduces obesity-related eating behaviors.

Mindfulness, or a state of consciousness during which an individual attends to his or her own thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental manner, has been used by mental health professionals for decades to treat such conditions as anxiety, depression and addiction disorders. A key component of mindfulness is to observe one’s feelings and thoughts without reacting to them; as applied to eating behavior, mindfulness encourages the consumer to eat in response to true hunger, tune in to the flavors and smell of the food, notice internal satiety signals, and to one’s best ability, eat without external distractions.  Even when it is not possible to escape to a quiet space to eat, mindful eating can teach people to respect their own hunger in the face of distracting external cues, such as incoming work emails, a dining companion’s food choice, or the sporting event on TV. When used in intervention studies, mindfulness training has been shown to reduce emotional eating and external eating, as well as to encourage weight maintenance and weight loss.

Eating mindfully is not just for people looking to lose weight. Taking the time to appreciate your food may lead to higher meal satisfaction and higher satisfaction with your daily activities – and that is truly something to savor.



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