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Eat Without Distractions

  • Eating

I get preachy about eating without distraction because doing so makes all the difference between mindful and mindless eating and, ultimately, unwanted eating. Because of my own transformation from troubled to “normal” eater, I know that attending exclusively to food speeds up change. Now, here’s proof from the scientific community.

Jeffrey Brunstrom, a researcher in behavioral nutrition at the University of Bristol in England, is the senior author of a study on eating and distraction. For his research, he had 22 volunteers play solitaire while eating a meal and another 22 eat the same meal without any distractions. Subjects were not told the focus of the study which was to assess post-meal fullness, the quantity of food eaten 30 minutes after the meal, and participant success in remembering what they had eaten. Care to guess the outcome?

The solitaire-playing eaters—no surprise!—did worse at recalling what they’d eaten and felt substantially less full just after their meal. Thirty minutes later, when given the opportunity to eat again, they ate two times as many cookies as those volunteers who had eaten without distraction. It’s all about recall, insists Brunstrom. “Memory plays an important role in the regulation of food intake, and distractions during eating disrupt that.” Which makes perfect sense because in order to remember something, we have to register it in the first place! If we don’t, it fails to become part of our memory bank.

Most troubled eaters recognize that they eat mindlessly when distracted. The question is why those of you who recognize this fact don’t try to correct the problem. The reasons I hear about why it’s “impossible” to eat without engaging in another task (or several other tasks!) generally fall under the lame lack-of-time excuse. The real answer is that focused eating initially feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable and you tell yourself you’re “wasting” time so you don’t do it, or do it often enough.

If you don’t have time to put your full attention on food most of the time—at least in the learning stages of “normal” eating—something is very wrong with your life. Moreover, you won’t overcome unwanted eating problems unless and until you stop making excuses and start making eating without distraction your #1 priority. This is not brain surgery. Simply turn off the TV, move away from the computer, get off the phone, shove your paperwork aside, close your book, put down your IPod—and pick up your knife and fork. If you are unwilling to do this simple behavior more often than not, then you are not ready to do to the serious work of becoming a “normal” eater.