It’s 2 p.m. and your stomach is grumbling something fierce.
That healthy lunch you packed the night before is still sitting on your kitchen counter at home. Your work is piled high and you need a break, but you don’t have time to actually sit and enjoy a meal.
You’re going to have to eat this one on the go. Take a pizza stroll — grab a slice and eat your lunch on the way back to work. Though it’s certainly emotionally unfulfilling, and dangerous if you prefer to keep your eyes on your vittles over the street, what effect does it have on your body?
Research suggests it’s not only sad, but also less physically satisfying, and could even lead to eating more at a later time.
A study from the University of Surrey looked at a group women who were made up of dieters and non-dieters. They were told they were participating in a study of how distraction affects the taste of foods and were asked not to eat anything three hours prior to arriving.
The study divided them into three groups. One watched a five minute segment of “Friends” while eating a cereal bar. Another was asked to walk around a corridor while eating. A third just sat and conversed with a friend while eating.
After the snack, participants were given a questionnaire, and took part in a taste test of four bowls of other snacks, containing carrot sticks, grapes, chips, and chocolate. The researchers took note of how much food was eaten after the participants left the room.
The dieters ate more after walking with their snack than those dieters that had watched TV or talked. They also ate five times more chocolate.
“Eating on the go may make dieters overeat later on in the day,” said lead author Jane Ogden, a behavioural psychologist at Surrey, in a press release. (The same results were not found in non-dieters in this small study, but stay tuned.)
What might be causing this? It turns out that our feelings of satiation are mental as well as physical. Your mind tells you you’re full just like your stomach.
“Walking is a powerful form of distraction which disrupts our ability to process the impact eating has on our hunger,”
said Ogden, in the release.
Walking may also cause us to subconsciously treat ourselves later. “Walking, even just around a corridor, can be regarded as a form of exercise which justifies overeating later on as a form of reward,” Ogden added.
But it really comes down to distraction.
“Even though walking had the most impact, any form of distraction, including eating at our desks can lead to weight gain,” explained Ogden in the release. “When we don’t fully concentrate on our meals and the process of taking in food, we fall into a trap of mindless eating where we don’t track or recognise the food that has just been consumed.”
Of course, the study was small, with only 60 participants (all of them female), and inconsistent results among the dieters and non-dieters. Its conclusions, generated in a lab setting, shouldn’t be taken as gastro-gospel — especially in the real world.
But other studies do support the notion that paying attention to and savouring our food means we need less to make us feel full. Mindless eating, meanwhile, generally makes us overeat.
A study from the British Journal of Nutrition compared eating Jaffa Cakes while playing a computer game versus eating them in focused silence. The participants who were eating while gaming noticed less of a difference to their levels of hunger and fullness after eating, even though they had consumed the same number of cakes (five) as the participants eating them in silence.
And a review of 24 previous studies found that the results have been pretty consistent across the board: Distraction makes you eat more, whether that’s walking or gaming or working. Not paying attention to your food not only makes you eat more during a meal, it also makes you hungrier later. And the researchers found that despite the results of the small Surrey study, this was generally true in dieters and non-dieters alike.
This is all pretty good news: We should happily take any advice that tells us to simply enjoy our food more. The world will be a better place with fewer sad desk lunches, and a few more slices of pizza eaten while sitting on a park bench instead of dashing down the street.
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