Distracted Eating Might Be Affecting You More Than You Think
How often do you find yourself eating while doing something else? Maybe working at your desk, scrolling through social media, reading the newspaper, watching TV, or driving?
If you're like many people, you probably multi-task while eating quite a lot. When your schedule is packed to the brim, things like eating somehow tend to get pushed to the side. I mean, if you’re capable of simultaneously eating, typing an email on your phone, and running to your car to drive to an appointment, then why not do it?
While it may seem like eating doesn’t take any conscious thought (you’ve been doing it since you were born, right?), eating while distracted might be affecting you more than you think.
Numerous studies have indicated that people tend to eat more when they’re distracted. One study found that this might be due to a disruption in the development of sensory-specific satiety, one cue that impacts our decision to stop eating. Sensory-specific satiety is the decrease in how pleasant or enjoyable a food tastes the more you eat of it at a given time. If you sit down to a big bowl of pasta, for example, and you stay connected with the food and your internal cues while eating, you’ll notice that the food doesn’t taste quite as good at a certain point and you may even get bored with eating. When distracted, you have a harder time registering what you’re eating and are more likely to continue eating past when you would have stopped if you hadn’t been distracted.
Along the same lines, our bodies are capable of providing reliable cues for both hunger and fullness. However, distraction and busyness make it harder to notice these cues. This can lead to a few things. First, you might find that you don’t even realize you’re hungry until you’re completely ravenous. Once you’re in that place, all hope of reasonable decision making when it comes to food flies out the window. Your body will drive you to eat whatever you can get as soon as you can get it. Additionally, you'll be much more likely to eat past comfortable fullness when you start eating in a state of ravenous hunger or when distracted. In both situations, it’s likely that you won’t notice what or how much you’ve eaten until it’s gone. At that point, the absence of more food becomes your prompt for stopping rather than your internal cues.
Another issues that can come with distracted eating is, if you’re not really tasting what you’re eating, it’s less likely that you’ll leave the meal feeling satisfied. Have you ever finished a meal and then found yourself rummaging through the cabinets or seeking out the nearest vending machine in search of that “extra something”? There’s more to ending a meal than just fullness. Satisfaction is really at the root of how we relate to food. If we’re choosing foods that aren’t satisfying because that’s what we think we “should” eat or we aren’t really tasting and enjoying our food because we’re so busy, we’ll find ourselves continually eating as we try to feel satisfied. By taking time to think about what sounds good and will make us feel our best and then eating that food with attunement (and without judgement), we’ll end the meal feeling much more satisfied and won’t be as likely to find ourselves fighting the endless pull of the snack cupboard.
So, how do you start being more mindful when it comes to eating? Here are a few ideas:
Schedule time for meals.
Scheduling meals may seem like the opposite of being mindful and present in the moment, but it actually creates the space for you to practice mindfulness. As I mentioned above, eating tends to get low priority after things like work and errands. Scheduling time for meals is a way to prioritize your self-care (and eating regular meals is self-care!). Treat the meal time you schedule on your calendar just as you would any of your other commitments. Then, commit to unplugging and sitting down without distraction during the time you set aside. Will it be uncomfortable at first? Probably. However, you might be surprised at how enjoyable it is to have that time set aside for yourself and at how much more you taste and enjoy your food. This prioritization of self-care often spills into other areas of your life as well.
Create an enjoyable environment.
Try to find a pleasant environment to sit in. Rather than staying at your desk surrounded by all the work you have to do, go to an outside patio, drive to a park, or find a spot near a window in your building. If at home, try to keep your table clear from mail and other clutter so you have an enjoyable place to sit and eat. Use your favorite bowl, plate, silverware, and placemat. Light a candle, turn on a diffuser, or keep fresh flowers on your table. If you’re sitting in an enjoyable environment, you’ll be much more likely to slow down and take your time while eating.
Take time to pause during meals.
Now that you have time set aside to eat meals without multi-tasking and have an enjoyable place to sit, you can actually take the time to hear what your body is telling you. You could check in after every few bites from the start or after you’ve finished half of the food. On the hunger/fullness scale below, rate your hunger level before you start eating. Try to notice the taste, texture, visual appeal, and smell of the food. Does the taste of the food diminish or becomes less exciting as you continue eating? What is the texture of the food like? How is your hunger/fullness level changing throughout the meal? When you think you’ve reached comfortable fullness, do you also feel satisfied? If not, was there something missing from the meal that you think might have helped you feel more satisfied? Maybe a food group (carbohydrate, fat, protein) was missing, or the food didn’t taste as good as you’d hoped? Just notice any thoughts that come up during this process, without judgement.
Becoming more mindful in your eating experiences takes a lot of patience and practice! As you practice, it becomes more second nature and you won’t have to focus quite as intently on it as you do in the beginning. There will always be times when life is busy and you have to eat on the run in the midst of distraction. That’s part of being human! As you become more skilled at mindful eating, you will be more familiar with your internal cues and more able to practice attunement even in these busy situations. A big part of being mindful is practicing self-compassion and letting go of judgement, so try to keep that in mind as you practice this new skill!
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