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Pay Attention When You Eat

Don’t watch television, read or play games on your computer while you’re eating. Such distractions cause you to ignore signals from your body that you’ve had enough. That was the advice in a recent bulletin from RealAge.com, which cited a study published in the October 2006 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition.

In the British study, Jeffrey M. Brunstrom, PhD, Lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, and his doctoral student Gemma Mitchell fed 88 young women Jaffa Cakes (think Twinkies), while half of them played Pong (virtual Ping Pong on a computer) and the other half ate quietly, without distraction. All participants were directed to eat one cake per minute for five minutes. As you probably guessed, the women playing Pong experienced significantly less hunger satisfaction than those who ate in silence. The non-distracted group, on the other hand, had a lot more time to register what they were eating.

RealAge also explained that concentrating on what you eat works best when you eat a specific food, and less well when you eat a variety of foods. “Your palette is primed for variety,” says RealAge. “The greater the variety of food, the more you’re likely to eat.” Mother Nature wants us to eat widely, of course, but it sometimes backfires in modern times. That’s why, says RealAge, “there’s always room for dessert, even when you’re stuffed.” Sure got that right, didn’t they?

In the second part of the experiment, another group of 84 young women were put through the same drill, but with a new twist at the end of the five minutes of snack-cake eating. They were queried at three time points (immediately after eating the cakes, and 5 and 10 minutes later) about their desire to eat more snack cakes and two uneaten foods: bacon-flavored corn snacks and mandarin fruit segments. This time the results were a little harder to guess. The women who ate in silence reported a decline in their desire to eat all three foods--but a greater decrease in desire for the snack cakes. The distracted Pong players “maintained a desire to eat all foods.” What’s more, the difference between the silent eaters and the pong players persisted at both 5 and 10 minutes after eating the snack cakes. In other words, the effect of the distraction continued well after the distraction stopped. This is important, because it suggests that paying attention to what you eat at each meal may result in less eating over the course of the day—and better weight control.

Here’s another take-home message from RealAge: “You’re less likely to overeat – and more likely to lose weight – if you eat the same thing for at least one of your meals, day in and day out. Aim for overall variety within a weeklong period, not each meal.” Sounds a lot like my “uniform eating” suggestion, and it’s a good one. Eat the same thing for breakfast or lunch every day, and you’ll be less likely to overeat. (I eat the same thing for breakfast every day and about four days a week for lunch.)

I have two confessions to make, however. First, the British study is a good bit more complicated than I’ve indicated, with  more confusing variables and qualifications (nine pages, double columns, small print). I cut through the fog, for my peace of mind and yours. Second, I almost always watch TV and read newspapers when I eat. I like to accomplish more than one thing whenever I can. (Carol is much more inclined to eat without distraction.) What saves me is that I only put on the table what I plan to eat; I put everything else away before I begin eating. When I finish eating, I’m forced to get up and open the refrigerator if I want more food. That makes me focus on whether I really want more food. I almost never do.

So one way or the other, think about what you eat before you eat it. Give your body a chance to tell you when you’ve had enough. Take it from me (and RealAge) you’ll be glad you did.

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