New Study: Food Intake Can Fall with Distracted Eating

Distracted eating has become a new national pastime. After all, who among us hasn’t eaten lunch while checking email at work, snuck in a snack while driving, squeezed in a bite while on the phone, or eaten while engaged in any number of tasks?

Conventional wisdom—and prior research—suggests that eating while distracted will cause people to overeat or to reach for unhealthier foods.

However, a new research study led by Carli Liguori, a visiting instructor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, indicates that not all forms of cognitive distraction result in the same food intake. The results show that engaging in some forms of “distracted” eating may cause people to eat less, whereas engaging in “mindless” eating may cause people to eat more.

The paper, “Cognitive Distraction at Mealtime Decreases Amount Consumed in Healthy Young Adults: A Randomized Crossover Exploratory Study,” was published in the Journal of Nutrition this past February. The study was completed while Liguori was earning her master’s degree in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois and her co-authors were Cassandra Nikolaus (postdoctoral research fellow, Washington State University)  and Sharon M Nickols-Richardson (professor, University of Illinois).

“At a time when obesity is a worldwide epidemic, we know that people are eating as a secondary activity more and more. It is something that we can all relate to,” said Liguori.

The study involved a randomized controlled cross-over study of 119 healthy adults. Participants’ food consumption was evaluated on two separate occasions: once while they engaged in distracted eating and on another day when they ate without distractions.

The distracted group ate their spinach and cheese quiche while playing a computer game in which they hit the spacebar whenever a specific series of numbers appeared on the screen. The non-distracted group ate their quiche without being asked to complete the task. After a rest period, the participants were offered a second snack of grapes and miniature chocolate chip cookies.

“The computer game that the distracted participants played was a form of a Rapid Visual Information Processing task. It was very important for us to be able to prove distraction,” said Liguori. 

She says the researchers were “very surprised” to observe that the participants who completed the task (the distracted eaters), ate significantly less quiche than their non-distracted counterparts. In addition, there was no difference between the groups in terms of who preferred cookies or grapes afterward. Based on prior research, they expected distracted eaters to eat more quiche and to make more unhealthy choices. 

“Our results suggest there is a difference between the terms ‘mindless eating’ and ‘distracted eating,’ which are often used interchangeably in the current literature,” said Liguori. “We believe there is a case to better differentiate these terms. Mindless eating occurs when you eat at a time when you were not intending to eat, whereas distracted eating occurs when you plan to eat but are also doing something else.”

However, before anyone celebrates the results as an excuse to eat in front of the TV, the study has several limitations with regards to its generalizability.

First, the participants were college-aged adults who may be healthier than the general population and are not necessarily a representative sample size. Second, all participants reported a low enjoyment of the quiche as a food choice. Third, the task that was selected in this research study may present a different level of cognitive load than other forms of distracted eating. 

Nevertheless, the study makes an important and surprising contribution to the science on food intake 

“This study is the first to really draw attention to the difference between distracted and mindless eating,” said Liguori.

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