My wife and I notice a big difference when we eat at the table versus in front of the TV. At the table we eat slower, enjoy our food more, and linger over conversation. In front of the TV it’s scarf city! Barely aware of what we’re eating, we tend to eat faster, and often more. After the meal we might move right to dessert or even another snack, just out of habit. Sound familiar?
Dr. Suzanne Higgs and colleagues have shown that memory plays a key role in when, what, and how much we eat. In a series of research studies, participants ate a meal with or without distractions. Participants who watched TV or played video games while eating had poor memory of what they ate. They also ate significantly more at their next meal and felt more hungry than their non-distracted counterparts, even if they ate the same amount of food.
So what does this mean? If you tend to do other things while you eat, you will probably end up eating more throughout the day. This goes double if you are very distracted: think doing an important work task while chowing at your desk.
Eating is something that can be done on automatic pilot, so it’s not surprising we direct our attention elsewhere. Multi-task! The problem is your brain is occupied and it’s not taking in all the relevant information to make a proper memory of what you ate. Without that information, you may default into thinking you need a big meal. “I’ll have that second helping of pasta thank you, I barely ate today!”
You can counteract this with a few simple strategies. Start by eating in a designated area (sit at the dining table or in the break room as opposed to the couch or your desk if you don’t already do so). Pause before you eat and become aware of everything on your plate for just five seconds. Try slowing your eating pace a little. Pause a couple of times while eating, put down all your utensils.
At one meal each day, see if you can focus your attention on the taste of your food, if just for a minute or two. Tune out the world and tune into your food. This will not only help you make a proper memory of what you ate, it will also help you become more mindful of your food choices and orient you to any feelings of satiety you may be starting to have.
You can also keep a log of what you eat. There are many free websites, like myfitnesspal.com, that will help you keep track. It will also give you nutritional information, help you set goals, and track your progress if you are interested.
Being mindful of what you eat, while you are eating it, can help prevent you from overeating. Give it a try!