Focusing on food can be harder than it sounds. Highly-distracted clients are asking dietitians, is my attention span affecting my appetite?
As anyone who has tried to change their diet knows, there is much more to a meal than just what is on the plate. Often, the bigger challenges to decode are the why and how behind eating patterns. As mindful eating habits have gained traction, dieters and dietitians alike are asking “Can distracted eating lead to less nourishing meals?”
The short answer is anything but simple. Mindful approaches are different for everyone, but yes -- distracted eating can lead to unhealthy habits and weight gain. Crafted by an expert using evidence-based research, here’s what we know about appetite and attention spans.
Read on for the latest on distractions and dietary patterns, including five tips from dietitians for dining without distractions.
What Distractions are Dangerous for Health and Nutrition?
It’s true -- small distractions add up big. A recent study found a strong relationship between eating without thinking and increased consumption. Distractions can take the meaning out of mealtime.
Being absent-minded can impact more than just appetite, experts say. Ignoring eating behaviors and multi-tasking can lead to the following dangerous habits:
Doubling the amount consumed
Unconsciously adopting the eating behaviors of others
Forgetting to wash hands or washing hands improperly
Cleaning cloths, countertops improperly
Improper food safety practices
These situations can also lead to lack of healthy eating, lack of family bonding, or loss of opportunities and skills (such as gardening and cooking).
One study suggests that a habit as simple as Instagramming your meal can lead to ignored internal cues:
“...meal-time photographers were more likely to eat in response to external cues (e.g. the sight of palatable food) than to internal cues of hunger.”
Benefits of Mindful Eating Vs. Mindless Eating
Mindful eating can cause individuals to develop a healthier relationship with food. It encourages food choices that are both fulfilling and nourishing.
Benefits of mindful eating include:
A renewed sense of hunger and fullness
Empowered eating habits
How can Dietitians Convince Highly-Distracted Clients to Focus on Food?
Dietitians can be crucial role models for parents and children. They can help to offer professional guidance regarding screen time, media plans, and electronic devices so that healthy eating habits can be reinforced or introduced. When easing children away from screens, it can be helpful to use educational programs or platforms then gradually introduce more active, non-screen activities.
Slow and Steady Wins the Pace
Experts and studies examining the effect of mindless eating and implementing mindfulness-based interventions suggest the following:
A slower process for changing eating behaviors is more sustainable in eliciting nutritious food choices
Stronger effects result from a focus on sustainable eating habits
A common intention needs to be created as an aim for the practice or program
Some helpful strategies include taking time to enjoy and savor the eating experience by removing electronic, naming foods and flavors, and thoroughly chewing food
Strategies for Success
It always helps to have a few successful strategies handy. For clients asking how to be more mindful at mealtimes, try employing the following eating strategies:
Practice gratitude for food.
Put away reading materials and electronics
Dedicate a space for eating.
Put down your utensils between each bite.
Enjoy and savor the food.
Engage your senses.
Chew each bite thoroughly.
Take a breath between each bite.
Name each flavor and food to focus attention.
Top 5 Tips for Avoiding Distracted Eating
1. Focus on improving nutrient density rather than implementing restrictions.
Instead of convincing yourself or your client to steer clear of sugary, salty, or fat-laden snacks, shift the focus. Aim attention at what you can add that is better rather than what you can subtract that is “bad”. Think of creative ways to incorporate fresh, low-calorie foods.
2. Make motivation for changes clear.
Pay attention to the feelings and emotions you have about eating. Emotionally and physically, it’s crucial to the change process to have a solid end goal to aim for. Practicing self-awareness and recognizing small successes along the way can help you accept or adjust where your attention wanders.
3. Identify emotional eating.
Hunger cues aren’t the only reason for eating. Sometimes sadness, fear, or irritability can be triggered. Determining the types of situations that prompt distracted eating activities can be key to avoiding automated responses or addictive behaviors.
4. Tune in and take your time.
Instead of carrying on a common, conditioned pattern, find pleasure in eating again. Deal with cravings by finding positive and productive coping strategies that produce self-control. Take time to enjoy eating by dedicating a time and space to your meal.
5. Start with small steps to see significant progress.
Encourage healthful eating practices by starting with one food-focused meal. Instead of tackling mindful eating all in one day, improve your chances of sticking to it by making gradual positive changes. Don’t just ignore distractions -- defuse them by using positive, mindful practices to distance yourself from harmful habits.
Above all, practice patience with yourself and your clients. It’s scientifically proven that mindfulness works, but it is most effective in eating environments where acceptance and self-compassion are practiced.
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