ShareThis Page

Distracted eaters likely to take in more calories

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 5:45 p.m.

NEW YORK — People who eat meals or snacks while watching TV, playing games or reading tend to consume more calories in a sitting, and especially later in the day, according to a review of two dozen past studies.

“Some studies have individually shown this before, but the evidence has never been put together,” said lead author Eric Robinson from the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.

Distracted eating could increase the amount of food consumed by up to 50 percent, Robinson said.

On the other hand, summoning memories of what was eaten in a previous meal decreased the amount of food eaten later.

“Even though we make decisions about what and when to eat with apparent ease all the time, these decisions are actually very complex and can be easily disrupted,” Suzanne Higgs, a study co-author and psychologist at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, told Reuters Health in an email.

The researchers broadly categorized eating patterns as “attentive,” such as sitting quietly and recording what was eaten during a meal, or the exact opposite, “distracted.” Distracted eaters do not pay close attention to food and are not as aware of how much they have eaten.

10 percent difference

Robinson and his colleagues searched the scientific literature and found 24 studies conducted between 1997 and 2011 that met their main criterion of involving an experimenter who actively manipulated participants' attention, memory and awareness of eating food. All of the studies were tightly controlled and monitored, but each had different methods of manipulating participants' attention and awareness.

For example, in one study, adult men and women watched television while eating. In another, participants snacked on pistachio nuts and experimenters immediately removed the nut shells from view.

The experiments ranged in size from 14 participants to 122, and 18 of the 24 studies were done with university students as subjects. Nearly all of the men and women in the experiments were normal weight, rather than overweight or obese.

The analysis suggests statistically significant differences between participants who ate attentively and those who ate while distracted, Higgs said.

On average, eating while distracted increased the amount eaten by about 10 percent, compared with not being distracted. It also increased the amount a person ate at a later meal by more than 25 percent.

In contrast, enhancing memories of food consumed at an earlier meal reduced the amount consumed at a subsequent meal by about 10 percent.

Changing behavior

Enhancing awareness of the food being consumed at the current meal did not, however, change how much people ate at that meal.

Still, in light of the overall results, the authors think that attentive eating techniques could be incorporated into weight loss regimens as an alternative to intense calorie-counting.

Robinson said these findings could be used, for instance, toward developing a mobile phone “app” that prompts people to eat with more attention and awareness.

Practices similar to attentive eating have been a part of behavioral therapy weight loss programs for decades, said Michael Lowe of Drexel University, who was not involved in the new study.

“The learned habits tend to dissipate after the program ends, and most individuals regain the weight they lost,” Lowe said.

For example, what works for a person in the normal weight range may not work for an obese individual, possibly because cognitive processes may differ between the two, Lowe said.

Robinson and Higgs have begun to look at distracted and attentive eating patterns among overweight and obese participants, but the study is ongoing.

“The findings, strictly speaking, only apply to those in the normal weight range,” Lowe said of the current study.

He added, “Even if you use the same laboratory setting, it's difficult to know if these same interventions would apply to obese individuals.

“There are some additional big steps before it's plausible that these findings could ultimately help people keep their weight off,” Lowe said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.