On a Diet? Learn How Distraction Reduces Temptation

Research reveals that with a busy mind, divided attention impacts appetite

Posted Aug 06, 2018

You reach the end of the buffet line, having dutifully filled your plate with raw vegetables and lean meat.  Totally unappetizing, but definitely faithful to your diet plan. But you are not out of the woods. In order to get back to your table, you have to pass the dessert bar.  Or at least you choose to walk by, just to “see what they have.”  As you do, unfortunately, you spot your Achilles heel.  The one item that could lead to your downfall: a delectable slice of chocolate cake.  What do you do?  Do you grab it, just to have “one bite,” or keep walking?  The answer depends on how hard you are thinking.

Distraction and Attention

If you reach this type of (appropriately analogized) fork in the road with little on your mind, perhaps during a leisurely Saturday brunch, you are in danger of blowing your diet.  If you spot the chocolate cake while engaged in a fascinating conversation with the person behind you in the buffet line, however, you might not even notice it.  

Lotte F. Van Dillen et al. in ”Turning a Blind Eye to Temptation” (2013) discovered that cognitive load can decrease the effect of temptation on both thinking and behavior.[i] When study participants were forced to engage in mental tasks that increased cognitive load, they paid less attention to attractive stimuli—both palatable food and attractive female faces. 

Temptation and Attention 

Van Dillen et al. noted that dieters already face an uphill battle, and studies show they pay selective attention to attractive food. They acknowledge that drinkers and smokers face similar challenges of “processing bias” when faced with objects associated with their vice of choice. Yet according to research, the likelihood of giving in to temptation appears to correlate with the attention paid to attractive cues. They note that performing a demanding task when exposed to tempting items may prevent cravings from forming in the first place.

Van Dillen et al. state that these findings suggest that temptation requires cognition, and engaging in mentally demanding tasks enhance self-regulation.Cognitive load thus allows us to turn a “blind eye” to desirable items.

Regarding the implications of their findings, they note, “contrary to traditional views, performing a concurrent demanding task may actually diminish the captivating power of temptation and thus facilitate self-regulation.”

Appetite and Attention: Chaotic Eating 

Busy people often do not have an opportunity to pay attention to tempting food items because they are simply not exposed to them.  They do not have time to even take a lunch break and sometimes, in the absence of food cues, do not feel hungry. Fortunately, research does not necessarily correlate skipped meals or keeping unusual meal times to weight gain.

Annie R. Zimmerman et al., (2018), studying what they term “chaotic eating,” defined as eating meals or snacks at variable times during the day, found that such patterns are not linked to body mass index.[ii]They note that their results challenge guidelines on the importance of maintaining standard meal times, and demonstrate that irregular meal times do not promote weight gain.

In another study, however, Kelly C. Allison and Namni Goel (2018) found that meal times can be a significant contributor to body weight regulation, and that eating at night can adversely impact weight and metabolism.[iii]

Combining research with practice, it is also true that arguably, the timing of meals may also impact portion control.  You probably devote less time and attention to whatever snack you grab as you are dashing to work than you do to that pint of Ben and Jerry´s you enjoy, unhurried, at the end of the day.  

Attention Impacts Intention

Whether you stick to traditional mealtimes or not, when temptation strikes, apparently, you are less likely to indulge if you are involved in another activity.  Everyone can relate to the experience of being totally engrossed in an interesting or enjoyable task, conversation, or project, where time seems to fly by.  Apparently, such conditions are also conducive to sticking to a diet plan.  

So when evaluating the credibility of that thin friend or colleague who explains away her svelte frame by claiming that she just “forgets to eat,” consider that in light of research indicating the consequences of distraction, perhaps that might be true.  


[i]Lotte F. Van Dillen, Esther K. Papies, and Wilhelm Hofmann, ”Turning a Blind Eye to Temptation: How Cognitive Load Can Facilitate Self-Regulation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology  104, no. 3, 2013, 427-443.

[ii]Annie R. Zimmerman, Laura Johnson, and Jeffrey M. Brunstrom, “Assessing “chaotic eating” using self-report and the UK Adult National Diet and Nutrition Survey: No association between BMI and variability in meal or snack timings,” Physiology & Behavior 192, 2018, 64-71.

[iii]Kelly C. Allison and Namni Goel, “Timing of eating in adults across the weight spectrum: Metabolic factors and potential circadian mechanisms,” Physiology & Behavior 192, 2018, 158-166.