Eating while distracted may lead to over-eating

I was giving a presentation yesterday, during which the subject of mindless eating came up. The fact is, some of us can find ourselves eating food without thinking. Particularly when distracted, we can end up eating more than we need to, and we may not make the greatest choices either. I wrote about mindless eating recently here, and in this post recommend one simple strategy that can work wonders to snuff out mindless eating (in essence, this means having healthy food accessible but not visible).

The concept of mindless eating came up again when I was looking at some recently published research on the train on the way home from the talk. It concerns the impact being distracted during eating has on food intake. In this study, individuals were fed a set meal of savoury foods (e.g. sandwiches and savoury snacks). Some individuals were given the food to eat while playing solitaire (a card game) on a computer. Other individuals were given the food in a non-distracted state.

After eating the food, individuals were asked, among other things, to rate feelings of fullness and hunger. About half an hour after lunch, individuals were given biscuits to eat freely. The amount of biscuits they ate was measured.

Immediately following lunch, individuals in the ‘distracted’ group reported feeling less full than those in the non-distracted group.

When presented with the biscuits, they ate about twice as much as the non-distracted group too.

The authors of this study cite other evidence which links eating while distracted (e.g. in front of a television) with reduced satisfaction from food and greater food intake later on. One theory for how this happens relates to distracted individuals responding less to internal cues from their body.

Whatever the precise explanation(s), the fact is that eating when distracted appears to enhance the risk of overeating. It also occurs that if we’re distracted while eating, the chances are we’re simply not going to enjoy food as much, either.

TV dinners should perhaps to be limited for these reasons. But also, I am certainly aware that many of the people I come across in my work can find themselves munching their way through their lunches while doing something else. Often, this involves a computer screen or smart-phone. I don’t think life should stop for food necessarily, but I’m also uncomfortable with the thought of individuals stuffing a sandwich into their mouths while ploughing through some emails.

Taking just 10-20 minutes to eat something half-decent and do little else is sometimes a challenge for people who have busy lives. My sense is, though, that this is time well spent in terms of what it returns in the form of improved health and effectiveness.


1. Oldham-Cooper RE, et al. Playing a computer game during lunch affects fullness, memory for lunch, and later snack intake. AJCN 8 December 2010 [epub ahead of print]

3 Responses to Eating while distracted may lead to over-eating

  1. John Walker 10 December 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Hi Dr Briffa,

    Any information on Quinoa (Keen-wah) please.
    Apparently it’s a protein and is also gluten free. Not a grain but a seed, I’m told, although what the difference is I can’t see!

    I’m looking for an alternative to Oats and baked beans. !

    Much obliged for the fat loss I have had. Only a few inches here and there, but it’s a start.

  2. Lori 12 December 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    I wonder if eating while distracted actually leads to weight gain for many people, rather than, say, having a smaller dinner once their fullness catches up with them. (I was snacking while distracted at someone else’s house last night and I’m not hungry for breakfast this morning.) I eat practically all my meals while watching TV or reading or fiddling around on the computer, and my weight has remained at a level that I like.

    However, there are certain things in the experiment that I don’t do, like sit down with a bag of cookies (biscuits). I prepare a meal or a snack, put away the leftovers, and usually eat it in front of the computer. If I want more, I have to get up and fix it. If I really want something sweet, I’ll make or buy something low-carb and wheat free. I find it easier to have a small amount of that as opposed to wheat flour cookies or cake.


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