Be aware of how dis­trac­tions af­fect eat­ing

Car­rie Den­nett dis­cusses dif­fer­ences be­tween mind­ful, dis­tracted eat­ing


There’s a Zen proverb: “When walk­ing, walk. When eat­ing, eat.” Un­for­tu­nately, mod­ern so­ci­ety seems to fol­low this adage: “When walk­ing, check your cell­phone. When eat­ing, check your cell­phone.”

Be­cause our food in­take seems to rise as our abil­ity to fo­cus falls, the diet and well­ness in­dus­tries have is­sued edicts to eat mind­fully and elim­i­nate meal­time dis­trac­tions. Though well-mean­ing, this ad­vice only adds to the pres­sure of a fast-paced world in which mul­ti­task­ing (within rea­son) can help us keep up.

Yes, mind­ful eat­ing, and mind­ful­ness it­self, have value. But do we re­ally need to shut off ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing around us to en­joy their ben­e­fits? To an­swer this ques­tion, we need to un­der­stand the con­cepts of mind­ful eat­ing and dis­tracted eat­ing.

Mind­ful eat­ing means in­creas­ing in­te­ro­cep­tive aware­ness — the aware­ness of bod­ily sen­sa­tions — as you eat. That means pay­ing at­ten­tion to sen­sa­tions of hunger and sati­ety — the re­duc­tion of ap­petite and/or hunger af­ter eat­ing. It also means be­ing aware of phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions such as ten­sion, fa­tigue and thirst, and emo­tional states such as anx­i­ety or bore­dom.

Mind­ful eat­ing is of­ten pro­moted as a weight-loss tool. If you’ve been mind­lessly overeat­ing, and be­ing mind­ful helps you make more at­tuned de­ci­sions about how much to eat, that could re­sult in weight loss. Many stud­ies have shown that eat­ing mind­fully helps re­duce emo­tional eat­ing, eat­ing in re­sponse to vis­ual cues in the ab­sence of hunger and binge eat­ing. Some study par­tic­i­pants also lost weight. But there’s no guar­an­tee.

The Cen­ter for Mind­ful Eat­ing de­fines mind­ful eat­ing as:

Al­low­ing your­self to be­come aware of the pos­i­tive and nur­tur­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties that are avail­able through food se­lec­tion and prepa­ra­tion by re­spect­ing your in­ner wis­dom.

Us­ing all your senses in choos­ing to eat food that is sat­is­fy­ing to you and nour­ish­ing to your body.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing re­sponses to food (likes, dis­likes or neu­tral) with­out judg­ment. Be­com­ing aware of phys­i­cal hunger and sati­ety cues to guide when you be­gin and end eat­ing. Nowhere does it say, “eat with­out any dis­trac­tions.”

Many peo­ple seem to as­sume that mind­ful eat­ing means elim­i­nat­ing dis­trac­tions, though that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the case. In fact, for many peo­ple strug­gling with eat­ing disor­ders or a con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with food, mind­ful eat­ing may in­crease anx­i­ety dur­ing meals, while dis­trac­tion may be ther­a­peu­tic.

For the rest of us, re­search does show that eat­ing while dis­tracted can lead to in­creased food in­take at that meal and the next meal, in part be­cause it af­fects our mem­ory of what and how much we ate. The re­al­ity, how­ever, is that eat­ing com­pletely with­out dis­trac­tion is im­prac­ti­cal. One of your great joys might be read­ing a book or a favourite mag­a­zine while din­ing solo.

One help­ful dis­tinc­tion to keep in mind comes from a 2013 study pub­lished in the jour­nal Ap­petite. It found there are two forms of dis­trac­tion con­nected with food — dis­trac­tion from hunger and dis­trac­tion from eat­ing.

Re­searchers asked par­tic­i­pants to eat while do­ing a driv­ing sim­u­la­tion, watch­ing tele­vi­sion, talk­ing with a re­searcher or sit­ting alone. The driv­ers were so dis­tracted from both hunger and eat­ing that they ate a small amount, mind­lessly, while those watch­ing tele­vi­sion were dis­tracted from hunger but not from eat­ing, so they mind­lessly ate a large amount. Those who in­ter­acted with the re­searchers were dis­tracted from eat­ing but still aware of their hunger. They ate lit­tle, prob­a­bly be­cause it’s awk­ward to eat alone while a stranger watches. Eat­ing alone al­lowed at­ten­tion to both hunger and eat­ing — in other words, mind­ful eat­ing.

Eat­ing with­out dis­trac­tion is im­prac­ti­cal. We can pay at­ten­tion to both hunger and eat­ing, and still en­joy a book or dine at our desks.

The value of mind­ful eat­ing does not lie in its util­ity as a weight-loss tool. It can be a pow­er­ful way to unite the mind and body dur­ing the eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, cre­at­ing a more bal­anced and sat­is­fy­ing re­la­tion­ship with food.

Many peo­ple seem to as­sume that mind­ful eat­ing means elim­i­nat­ing (all) dis­trac­tions, though that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the case.


Re­search shows that dis­tracted eat­ing can re­sult in greater food in­take at that meal and even the fol­low­ing meal be­cause we don’t re­call how much we’ve eaten.


Pre-por­tion your food if you know you must eat while dis­tracted, such as in front of the tele­vi­sion. This will help you eat less.

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