Distracted eating can make you fat: Avoid with 7 tips

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Distracted eater

People who eat while watching TV, reading, playing games or doing other things, are more likely to consume more calories in a sitting, according to a review of two dozen past studies.

"Some studies have individually shown this before, but the evidence has never been put together," said lead author, Eric Robinson, from the University of Liverpool in the UK.

Robinson added that up to 50 percent more food was consumed by distracted eaters, compared to those who focused on their food without watching TV or doing other things during their meal. And distracted eating late in the day can especially increase the number of calories consumed.

However, the ability to remember what was eaten in a previous meal decreased the amount of food eaten later.

"Even though we make decisions about what and when to eat with apparent ease all the time, these decisions are actually very complex and can be easily disrupted," Suzanne Higgs, a study co-author and psychologist at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told Reuters Health.

Higgs, Robinson and other researchers on their team broadly categorized eating patterns as "attentive," such as sitting quietly and recording what was eaten during a meal. On the other hand, they categorized the exact opposite as "distracted", referring to those eaters who did not pay close attention to food and were not as attentive or aware of how much they had eaten.

The team researched previous scientific literature on distracted eating, finding 24 tightly controlled and monitored studies conducted between 1997 and 2011 that met their primary objective: they involved experiments with participants whose attention, memory and awareness of food was actively manipulated. Although each of the 24 previous studies were tightly controlled and monitored, each of them also had different methods of manipulating participants' attention and awareness.

In one study for example, male and female participants watched television while eating. In another, the participants snacked on pistachio nuts while the experimenters immediately removed the nut shells from view.

The 24 different studies ranged in size from 14 participants to 122 – with 18 of them involving experiments where the participants were university students. Nearly all of the participants in the experiments were normal weight, instead of being overweight or obese.

According to Higgs, the analysis taken from all the studies suggests statistically significant differences between participants who ate attentively and those who ate while distracted – with the amount eaten by distracted eaters averaging an increase of 10 percent, as opposed to those who were not distracted. However, distracted eaters increased the amount they ate at the next meal by more than 25 percent.

Another finding was that “attentive” eaters, those who focused on what they ate, had improved memories about the food consumed during a prior meal and ate less at a subsequent meal by approximately 10 percent.

Based on the overall results, the authors concluded that attentive eating techniques could be incorporated into a person’s weight loss program as an alternative to intense calorie-counting.

For example, Robinson said these findings could be useful for developing a mobile-phone "app" that prompts people to eat with more attention and awareness.

Similar practices to attentive eating have been a part of behavioral therapy weight loss programs for decades.

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"The learned habits tend to dissipate after the program ends and most individuals regain the weight they lost," said Michael Lowe of Drexel University, who was not involved in the new study.

As an example, Lowe pointed out what works for a normal weight person may not work for an obese person because cognitive processes could possibly differ between the two.

Meanwhile, Robinson and Higgs have already begun to look at distracted and attentive eating patterns among those who are overweight and obese, and the study is ongoing.

"The findings, strictly speaking, only apply to those in the normal weight range," Lowe said of the current study. "Even if you use the same laboratory setting, it's difficult to know if these same interventions would apply to obese individuals," he added.

"There are some additional big steps before it's plausible that these findings could ultimately help people keep their weight off," Lowe said.

There are ways you can be more mindful and fully present while eating. Eating in a more focused manner will help you avoid the pitfalls and potential weigh gain from distracted eating.

The National Eating Disorders Association provides the following tips for eating more mindfully from Susan Albers, PsyD:

1. Shift out of Autopilot Eating
What did you have for breakfast? Be honest. Many people eat the same thing day in and day out. Notice whether you are stuck in any kind of rut or routine.

2. Take Mindful Bites
Did you ever eat an entire plate of food and not taste one single bite? Bring all of your senses to the dinner table. Breathe in the aroma of a fresh loaf of bread. Notice the texture of yogurt on your tongue. Truly taste your meal. Experience each bite from start to finish.

3. Attentive Eating
Sure, you’re busy and have a lot “on your plate.” It’s hard to make eating a priority rather than an option or side task. If you get the urge for a snack while doing your homework or studying, stop and take a break so that you can give eating 100% of your attention. Try to avoid multitasking while you eat. When you eat, just eat.

4. Mindfully Check In
How hungry am I on a scale of one to ten? Gauging your hunger level is a little like taking your temperature. Each time you eat, ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry?” Aim to eat until you are satisfied, leaving yourself neither stuffed nor starving.

5. Thinking Mindfully
Observe how critical thoughts like “I don’t want to gain the Freshman Fifteen.” or “I’m so stupid, how could I do that?!” can creep into your consciousness. Just because you think these thoughts doesn’t mean you have to act on them or let them sway your emotions. Negative thoughts can trigger overeating or stop you from adequately feeding your hunger.
Remember: A thought is just a thought, not a fact.

6. Mindful Speech
Chit chatting about dieting and fat is so commonplace that we often aren’t truly aware of the impact it might have on our self-esteem. When you are with friends and family, be mindful of your gut reaction to “fat talk” (e.g. “I’m so fat!” or the “I’m so fat; No you’re not” debate). Keep in mind how the words might affect someone struggling with food issues.

7. Mindful Eating Support
Friends provide an enormous amount of support, but often it’s helpful to obtain assistance or a second opinion from a trained professional. If you would like to learn more about mindful eating, or if you have concerns about your eating habits, call your college counseling center, student health center or consult the NEDA website for information and treatment referrals

SOURCES: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online February 27, 2013 (bit.ly/YfR5Gd); National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)


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