Are You a Distracted Eater?

by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

There seems to be a common perception that mindless eating is a condition in which you have no idea that you just ate, akin to “eating amnesia”. Many of my clients eat while distracted—but don’t consider themselves mindless eaters, because they are aware that they are eating while engaging in another activity, such as watching television.

Similarly, most car drivers would not readily identify themselves as “mindless drivers”, because they are aware they are driving, and usually get to their destination without getting lost. However, if you describe someone as a distracted driver, it conjures up a clearer image—such as driving while talking on the cell phone or while applying make-up.

The problem, I believe, is a terminology issue. Unless you are trained in mindfulness, the description of “distracted”, rather than “mindless” seems to resonate with more people. A new study published this month makes a good case about the effect of distraction on eating.


Distracted Eating Study
Scientists divided people into one of two groups. The Distracted group ate lunch while playing a computer game of solitaire. The Non-distracted group ate the same type of lunch, but without the distraction conditions.

The study’s findings showed that distraction made a significant impact on the eating experience, both qualitative and quantitative. When compared to the Non-distracted group, the distracted people:
• Ate faster
• Couldn't remember what they
• Ate more snacks
• Reported feeling significantly less full

The research also showed that that distraction during a meal influenced meal size later in the day.

Satisfaction & Satiety Effected by Distraction

We are living in such a multitasking-high-urgency era, that even when not pressed for time, it seems that many people are in the routine of eating while distracted. The distracted conditions in the study are similar to how my clients eat, such as eating while: checking email, texting, Facebooking, tweeting—you get the idea.

When I suggest eating a meal without distraction to my clients, they practically go into withdrawals. And therein lies the paradox. To achieve a satisfying eating experience (principle six of Intuitive Eating) requires being mentally present while eating. When I get a lot or resistance to this notion, (which is usually the case), I ask my clients to contemplate these questions:

• What would it be like to eat without doing any other activity or distraction?
• What do you need in order to eat without distraction?
• What do you fear about eating in this manner?

I hear responses such as, “I don’t know what I’d do…” or “I need to have my kitchen and eating area de-cluttered and cleaned before I can do this” or “I’ll be bored” or “I’ll feel guilty if I’m not doing something while I eat”….

The irony of eating while distracted is that you end up missing out on the eating experience, which often means, eating needs to be repeated. It’s akin to having a phone conversation with a friend while you are checking email. You might respond to the conversation at the right times, but something is missing, there is a disconnect—and usually the person on the other line can tell you are not 100% there. In the case of distracted eating—it is your body that knows.

Links

Oldham-Cooper RE et al. Playing a computer game during lunch affects fullness, memory for lunch, and later snack intake. Am J Clin Nutr 2011 93: February 308-313.

Are You a Distracted Eater? written by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

Copyright © 2011 by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD Published at www.IntuitiveEating.org

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DISCLAIMER: The information is intended to inform readers and is not intended to replace specific advice from a health care professional.