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Cutting Out Mealtime Distractions May Help Manage Weight

By Barbara Bronson Gray
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 28 (HealthDay News) -- Too much multitasking could make you overeat, a new study suggests. So if you're finding it hard to reach or maintain your ideal weight, slowing down and savoring your meal might help.

Taking the time to focus on your food -- appreciating how it tastes and smells -- may keep you from snacking or overstuffing hours later.

Researchers have discovered that watching television may not just be doing what experts have long assumed: turning you into an exercise-avoiding couch potato. The couch isn't necessarily the problem -- it's that you're not paying attention to what you're eating. That tends to make you feel less full -- some people can't even remember what they ate and when -- which in turn causes them to eat even more.

"We have assumed TV was decreasing everyone's exercise but in principle it might be the distraction [that leads to weight gain]," said lead study author Eric Robinson, a research fellow at the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool, in England.

Being aware and remembering what you've been eating may influence how much you eat, so enhancing your focus and memory of your intake could be critical to helping you eat less, Robinson said.

Instead of consciously counting calories, people may be better served by thinking about what they're eating, noticing the taste, texture and aroma of the food, and chewing a little more slowly instead of chowing down a meal quickly, he said.

Robinson became interested in memory and its potential impact on food intake after reviewing studies of people who suffered amnesia or severe memory loss. Studies showed that people who were unable to remember something that occurred just a short time ago would eat lunch, and then, when served another meal shortly thereafter, would eat again -- even though they were presumably full.

"They would happily carry on eating, and this shows memory systems play a role in stimulating eating and hunger," Robinson said.

The research, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, analyzed 24 studies that had investigated the influence of attention and memory on food intake. All studies involved at least two different groups -- often made up of college students -- and compared the results between the groups. For example, one gave a specific meal to people who were watching television and the same meal to people who were not. Another compared people who ate alone to those who ate while watching television or a recorded radio drama.

The findings suggest the following conclusions:

  • Being distracted or less attentive to the food you're eating tends to make you eat more at that sitting.
  • Paying attention to what you're eating tends to make you eat less later on.
  • Even those who are dieting -- called "restrained eaters" by the researchers -- may eat more if they are distracted than if they are able to focus on their food.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University at St. Louis, said the research reinforces what dieticians have known for a long time: If you don't pay attention to what you're eating, you will eat more. But she said the new research adds something to the science: Eating while distracted will also affect what you eat later.

"That's a big part that people may not have really thought about before," she said.

Yet for many busy families, slowing down meals may seem impossible. "We've become a grab-and-go-society," she said. "People will eat meals in less than five minutes."

Diekman suggested that even those who dine alone should set a place at the table, cook a meal and enjoy it. "Don't automatically turn on the TV," she said.

Even if you're eating while working at your computer, you can still focus a bit more on the food, Diekman added. "Eat, and then look at the computer, and then eat a few more bites," she said. "Slowing down may be important because it allows you to focus on your food."

For Diekman, the message is simple: "It's all about making a meal an experience and not just eating food," she said.

More information

Learn more about weight control from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Eric Robinson, Ph.D., research fellow, Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, University of Liverpool, England; Connie Diekman, R.D., M.Ed., director of university nutrition, Washington University at St. Louis; April 2013 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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