Distraction during eating reduces fullness & increases subsequent consumption

How many of us are completely focused on our food when we eat?  Modern technology like TVs, computers, cell phones, etc are nearly ubiquitous.  Books, magazines, newspapers are usually always within reach.  Especially if we are alone, it seems almost unnerving to eat in silence.  Do modern distractions affect how much we eat?

A growing body of research points to yes.   As summarized in a new paper by Oldham-Cooper et al., existing research already suggests that watching TV and even listening to music increases food consumption not only during the meal, but at subsequent meals as well.  Other research has found that remembering foods in a meal can reduce intake at the next meal.  So if we are distracted while we eat, it seems we may eat more later than if we are not distracted, because we just don’t as accurately recall how much we eat earlier.

Oldham-Cooper and colleagues extended this observation with a new experiment, using a computer game for distraction: solitaire.  44 subjects either ate lunch (all lunches were the same at ~471.5 kcal) while playing solitaire, or ate without distraction.  Mood, hunger, and fullness were rated after the meals, then subjects immediately memorized a word list for 1 minute.  A half hour later, the subjects took part in a “cookie taste test” where they rated characteristics of 3 kinds of cookie (ad libitum intake of cookies allowed).  Then, they were asked to recall the word list as well as what foods they eat for lunch (there were 9) and what order they consumed them in.

The subjects that played solitaire during lunch ate significantly more cookies than those who did not.  If my math is correct, averaging the calorie content of the cookies results in a higher average intake of ~123 kcal in the subjects who played solitaire (the authors reported intake in grams).  They also were ~1 item worse on recalling the order of the food items that they ate for lunch, and self-rated fullness after lunch as less than those who weren’t distracted.

The authors speculate that distraction interferes with the “ability to correctly attribute visceral sensations to recent eating.”  They cite 3 previous studies that show amnesic and dementia patients do not have normal reductions in hunger after eating even large meals.

Alarming statistics cited by the authors: 25% of children’s total energy intake is consumed while watching TV.  In 1 study in overweight women, this number was closer to 50%.

Can you remember what you ate today?

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Oldham-Cooper RE, Hardman CA, Nicoll CE, Rogers PJ, & Brunstrom JM (2011). Playing a computer game during lunch affects fullness, memory for lunch, and later snack intake. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 93 (2), 308-13 PMID: 21147857

  • Luis

    Hi Colby,

    Thanks for the post.

    Got a question: what sort of impact “social distractions” could have on food intake? Does having a conversation, for instance, whilst eating, would have the same sort of impact that doing a less interactive activity such as playing solitaire?

    I would guess that sharing a meal, despite the loss of focus in the food itself, would have its good bits, wouln’t be?


    • http://www.recomp.com Colby

      That is a great questions Luis- I did a little lit searching to see if any indirect research might answer that question. The research on family dynamics and food consumption may be a clue, but I don’t think there is a clear answer:

      This study was controlled on what foods the subjects were required to eat, but other research suggests that when families eat together, they choose healthier options. Families that eat in front of the TV tend to consume more fast/processed foods. When children are brought up in this environment, they tend to maintain similar food choices into adulthood. So clearly, establishing healthy patterns early on is smart. Getting families to slow down and prepare foods at home and make eating a social experience is probably the best way to do this, but i’m not sure it can answer the question of distraction. Does distraction still have anything to do with the amount of food the families who are eating together? Possibly, but it may be that it doesn’t matter for them; establishing healthier eating habits with less energy dense foods that subsist into adulthood would be the greater good here. This also means that distraction during eating would not necessarily result in weight gain in all contexts- but in one of an abundance of palatable, high calorie junk foods is where it might be most dangerous. It is very possible that brain engagement during conversation is different enough so that the answer can’t be garnered from this research.

      This is just speculation of course, it will be interesting to see what research continues to show.

    • http://www.recomp.com Colby

      I guess my previous searching used the wrong keywords; I just stumbled upon a study that looked at this exact issue. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16757007

      From the abstract, they found that eating with friends and in front of the TV increased energy intake by about the same amount, but eating with strangers did not lead to an increased intake. So it appears that distraction is not necessarily the main factor in social contexts. Interesting…

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