Nutritional Pearls: Meal Time Distractions

Wendy is a 24-year-old college student who has struggled with her weight since high school.

Wendy reports that she eats a majority of her meals in front of the television and asks if that could have any effect on her weight loss success.

How do you advise your patient?
(Answer and discussion on next page)

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Answer: If you are working on your weight, minimize the distractions present while you eat.

Studies have shown that both adults and children tend to eat more while they watched TV or listened to music. The theory is that being distracted from what you're eating appears to reduce your attention from physical or mental cues to stop eating.

The Research

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom sought to gain greater understanding of the distraction phenomenon by adding the question of snacking to the equation.1 They designed 3 brief studies to find out if being distracted in various ways while eating a meal would have an effect on how much a person ate later in the day. In all 3 studies, the participants were split into 3 groups, with 1 group serving as a control group. They were served a standardized lunch followed 2-3 hours later with the opportunity to snack on as many cookies as they wished. Appetite and mood questionnaires were administered before each eating session.

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In the first study, the 2 test groups were asked to play a simple computer game designed to be played easily with one hand while they ate lunch. One of the test groups was told that a reward would be offered for the participant who won the game the most, while the other was just asked to play the game while eating.

In the second study, the 2 test groups watched a television clip while eating. One clip showed a celebrity chef making a dish similar to what the participants were served for lunch, while the other was was not about food.

The final study had the 2 test groups listening to a guided imagery session through headphones while eating. One imagery session asked the participant to imagine they were outside of themselves, watching themselves eat. The other asked them to imagine they were watching a celebrity (in this case, David Beckham) eat the same lunch they were eating.

Each time the participants returned for their later snacking session, they were asked specific questions about the lunch meal they had eaten earlier, allowing the study authors to measure how distracted they were during their meal.

The Results

It probably won't be a surprise that in the first study, those who were distracted the most while eating (playing the game for a reward) ate the most cookies, while those who played the game without a specific reward ate fewer, and the control group the least. In study 2, however, those who watched the chef ate fewer cookies than those who watched the entertainment television clip, while the undistracted eaters again ate the fewest cookies.

In the third study, those who were not distracted by thinking of themselves or another ate the most cookies later, while those who imagined a celebrity diner ate fewer and those who imagined themselves eating ate the least of all.

It's clear that paying attention to what you are eating affects how much you are inclined to eat in later snacking sessions. These studies suggest that distractions that are food-related may lessen that effect. The authors note that the participants in all 3 studies were female university students, so it's difficult to say whether men or people of other ages would have the same results. They also noted that, "[w]e restricted our sample to women [college students] only because males tend to take advantage of the opportunity to eat as much as possible in these kinds of studies."

What’s the Take-Home?

If you are working on your weight, minimize the distractions present while you eat. Turn off the television, turn away from your computer, and quiet the radio. You'll remember your meal better and you'll snack more sensibly later.


1. Higgs S. Manipulations of attention during eating and their effects on later snack intake. Appetite 2015;92(9):287-294.