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.