According to a new study by researchers Reine van der Wal and Lotte van Dillen, people tend to eat more and taste less when they are distracted. In the study, college students were asked to either memorize a long string of digits or a single digit. They were then told to taste drinks of varying acidities while writing down the information that they had to memorize. When the students had to rate the sourness of their drinks, those who only had to memorize one digit rated their drinks as more sour than the students who had to memorize long strings of digits. They were less distracted, so they could focus more on how the drinks tasted.
In another experiment, students were still required to memorize numbers, but they were allowed to sweeten their drinks with grenadine syrup. Students who had more information to memorize and were therefore more distracted ended up making sweeter drinks. They also drank more of their drinks than their less distracted peers.
These findings were not isolated incidents. They are evidence of a phenomenon that some have named “zombie eating,” or the tendency to not pay attention to how much we’re eating or even what we’re eating when we’re distracted by something else. Zombie eaters tend to almost unconsciously eat while they’re doing other things such as watching TV, doing homework or doing anything that takes their attention away from their food. They also taste less of their food, prompting them to want more flavor.
As innocent as it may sound to some people, zombie eating can become a problem. When people are distracted by TV, newspapers, and their homework or even by conversations with friends and family, they ignore the psychological cues that tell them they’re full. They may even ignore the tangible evidence that tells them that they’ve had too much to eat such as candy wrappers and empty soda cans piling up on the floor. This is why people tend to overeat when they watch TV or do anything else when they eat.
The key to avoid zombie eating is engaging in what researchers call “mindful eating.” This is when people focus entirely on eating in a deliberate or even meditative manner. Mindful eating involves savoring the flavors of what we eat and paying attention when we start to feel full. Parents and teachers can help children do this by reserving snack times for eating snacks and doing nothing else and insisting that meals are eaten at the kitchen table instead of in front of the television.
The only problem with mindful eating is that many people start to get bored. It turns out that people enjoy zombie eating. They like watching TV, having conversations, reading books or doing anything else to keep them “busy” while they eat. For many people, it’s what makes mealtimes fun.
So, if stopping zombie eating takes most of the enjoyment out of eating, what can we do instead to curb bad eating habits? Experts say that we don’t have to stop eating while doing other things all the time, but we should still take steps to keep us from eating too much. Taking smaller bites and sips keeps us from underestimating how much we’ve had to eat, but for many the solution lies in simply serving a small fixed portion before we sit down and mindlessly feed ourselves in front of the TV[i].
At a recent healthy-eating cooking class attended by this writer, the cuisine presented was vegetarian Indian cooking. The topic of discussion was mindful-food preparing and mindful eating. Learning about the source of the food (local? factory? organic? humane?) honoring it and added love as a key ingredient of the preparation, were discussed in our lively conversation. One of the attendees described how she helped train herself to slow down, enjoy more and actually loose weight by holding smaller amounts of food in her mouth, noticing the flavors and saying “mmmmmm” as she savored and swallowed EACH bite. This technique was perfectly suited to enjoying the complex flavors of our Indian cuisine but what about the turkey sandwich you are having for lunch? Try slowing down and taste each bite. Appreciate where it comes from. If it doesn’t taste good, perhaps you shouldn’t be eating it.
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[i] This article was inspired by: http://theamericanscholar.org/on-zombie-eating/#.UflTRGSgmGo
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