Harvard Health Publications

Distracted eating may add to weight gain

Posted By Howard LeWine, M.D. On March 29, 2013

If you are worried about your weight, paying more attention to what you eat, not less, could help keep you from overeating. Multitasking—like eating while watching television or working—and distracted or hurried eating can prompt you to eat more. Slowing down and savoring your food can help you control your intake.

That’s the bottom line from a report published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. A team from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom scoured the medical literature for studies that have looked at how attention and memory affect food intake. All of these studies had at least two groups, such as one group that ate a particular meal while watching television and another that ate the same meal without television.

These studies point to two key conclusions:

  • Being distracted or not paying attention to a meal tended to make people eat more at that meal
  • Paying attention to a meal was linked to eating less later on.

These results make good sense. Hunger isn’t the only thing that influences how much we eat during the day. Attention and memory also play roles. For example, after you start eating, it takes 20 minutes or so before the brain begins to start sending out “I’m full” or “I’m not hungry anymore” signals that turn off appetite. If you are hurrying or not paying attention, it’s easy to take in many more calories than you need in 20 minutes.

If you aren’t mindful of what’s going into your mouth, you don’t process that information. That means it doesn’t get stored in your memory bank. And without a memory of having eaten, you are more likely to eat again sooner than you might have if you ate mindfully.

Mindful eating

Mindful eating is an application of a broader approach to living called mindfulness. It involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around you at the moment. You can practice mindfulness during any daily activity—including eating.

Applied to eating, mindfulness includes noticing the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food. It also means getting rid of distractions like television or reading or working on your computer.

If mindful eating is a new concept for you, start gradually. Eat one meal a day or week in a slower, more attentive manner. Here are some tips that may help you get started:

  • Set your kitchen timer to 20 minutes, and take that time to eat a normal-sized meal.
  • Try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you’re a righty, hold your fork in your left hand when lifting food to your mouth.
  • Use chopsticks if you don’t normally use them.
  • Eat silently for five minutes, thinking about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun’s rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
  • Take small bites and chew well.
  • Before opening the fridge or cabinet, take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” Do something else, like reading or going on a short walk.

Mindful eating can reduce your daily calorie intake. By paying attention to what you are putting into your mouth, you are more likely to make healthier food choices. And you will enjoy meals and snacks more fully. That’s a pretty good three-fer!

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