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Are You a Distracted Eater?

by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

There seems to be a common perception that mindless eating is a condition in which you have no idea that you just ate, akin to "eating amnesia". Many of my clients eat while distracted-but don't consider themselves mindless eaters, because they are aware that they are eating while engaging in another activity, such as watching television.

Similarly, most car drivers would not readily identify themselves as "mindless drivers", because they are aware they are driving, and usually get to their destination without getting lost. However, if you describe someone as a distracted driver, it conjures up a clearer image-such as driving while talking on the cell phone or while applying make-up.

The problem, I believe, is a terminology issue. Unless you are trained in mindfulness, the description of "distracted", rather than "mindless" seems to resonate with more people. A new study published this month makes a good case about the effect of distraction on eating.

Distracted Eating Study
Scientists divided people into one of two groups. The Distracted group ate lunch while playing a computer game of solitaire. The Non-distracted group ate the same type of lunch, but without the distraction conditions.

The study's findings showed that distraction made a significant impact on the eating experience, both qualitative and quantitative. When compared to the Non-distracted group, the distracted people:

                         Ate faster
                         Couldn't remember what they Ate
                         more snacks
                         Reported feeling significantly less full

The research also showed that that distraction during a meal influenced meal size later in the day.

Satisfaction & Satiety Effected by Distraction

We are living in such a multitasking-high-urgency era, that even when not pressed for time, it seems that many people are in the routine of eating while distracted. The distracted conditions in the study are similar to how my clients eat, such as eating while: checking email, texting, Facebooking, tweeting-you get the idea.

When I suggest eating a meal without distraction to my clients, they practically go into withdrawals. And therein lies the paradox. To achieve a satisfying eating experience (principle six of Intuitive Eating) requires being mentally present while eating. When I get a lot or resistance to this notion, (which is usually the case), I ask my clients to contemplate these questions:

 What would it be like to eat without doing any other activity or distraction?

What do you need in order to eat without distraction?

What do you fear about eating in this manner?

 I hear responses such as, "I don't know what I'd do..." or "I need to have my kitchen and eating area de-cluttered and cleaned before I can do this" or "I'll be bored" or "I'll feel guilty if I'm not doing something while I eat"....

The irony of eating while distracted is that you end up missing out on the eating experience, which often means, eating needs to be repeated. It's akin to having a phone conversation with a friend while you are checking email. You might respond to the conversation at the right times, but something is missing, there is a disconnect-and usually the person on the other line can tell you are not 100% there. In the case of distracted eating-it is your body that knows.


Oldham-Cooper RE et al. Playing a computer game during lunch affects fullness, memory for lunch, and later snack intake. Am J Clin Nutr 2011 93: February 308-313.

Are You a Distracted Eater? written by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

Copyright © 2011 by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD Published at

10 Principles

1. Reject the Diet Mentality Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.

2. Honor Your Hunger Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.

3. Make Peace with Food Call a truce, stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can't or shouldn't have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing When you finally "give-in" to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.

4. Challenge the Food Police .Scream a loud "NO" to thoughts in your head that declare you're "good" for eating under 1000 calories or "bad" because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created . The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.

5. Respect Your Fullness Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you're comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence--the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you've had "enough".

7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won't fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won't solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You'll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.

8. Respect Your Body Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It's hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.

9. Exercise--Feel the Difference Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it's usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.

10 Honor Your Health--Gentle Nutrition Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don't have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It's what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.

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