Eat Less Later By Paying Attention Now

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.

Eating while being distracted. We all have done it. Whether it be while watching TV or on the phone, reading the newspaper, or surfing the Internet. And you have probably looked down at your plate and thought, “Where did all that food go?” It has long been known that eating while being distracted typically leads to increased food consumption but a recent review of 24 studies found that not only is food intake increased at that actual meal (or snack) but it is also increased at later meals as well and, get this, to a greater extent (Robinson, 2013). This was true even if consumption during the distraction was normal. This lead the researchers to look at the impact food intake awareness and memory have on total food consumption. And sure enough they found that being more aware and paying added attention to meals and recalling them later on resulted in lower food intake. This provides further evidence of the importance of mindful eating for weight maintenance and weight loss.  And the good news is that it is a relatively simple approach that when applied may even negate the need for more complex, more time-consuming, or less convenient approaches such as calorie counting.

So what are some ways that you can be more mindful while you eat?

Well first is to create a good eating experience—one you can appreciate and enjoy and one that you are more likely to remember later on.

  • Remove distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your phone. Close your computer screen. Stop reading because if you are doing these things, you are not paying attention to what and how much is going in your mouth. Part of reducing intake later on is the memory of your last meal being not only filling but also satisfying.
  • Sit at the table.  The experience of the meal is part of the memory that is created. Eating while doing other things like while working on the computer, in the car running errands, or while preparing the kids’ meals (guilty!) causes us to not only lose track of how much we have eaten but may lead to eating later on because we feel as though we haven’t “had a meal.”
  • Try to pick out the components of your food. Focusing on what you are tasting helps you to fully appreciate every bite and can be fun.
  • Use smaller plates. A full plate makes the appearance of the food seem greater. And an empty plate is a strong cue that the meal has ended so starting with less means and seeing it cleared not only tells us we are through but also increases our satisfaction.

Second is to SLOW DOWN. We tend to rush through so many things in our busy lives but eating should not be one of them. There are many ways that this can be done.

  • Chew thoroughly. There is a good chance that if you are a fast eater that you are not fully chewing your food and are swallowing a good amount of it whole (again, guilty!) which can be unpleasing to the gastrointestinal system. Not only that, but chewing your food more slowly enhances the senses, allows the full taste of the food to be experienced which makes you appreciate the meal to a greater extent and makes for a more enjoyable experience overall.  In addition, sensory information from chewing is used by the brain to determine fullness and satiety. It takes time for your brain to receive signals from your stomach that you have had enough, about 20 minutes so eating too quickly can cause you to still feel hungry and continue to eat unnecessarily. Slowing down takes practice so it is a good idea to at first count the number of times you chew something before you swallow it. A good guideline to shoot for is to chew each bite 20 or more times.
  • Take smaller bites. This not only helps you to slow down and chew more thoroughly but also extends your meal and leaves you feeling like you have eaten more.
  • Have a drink. No, we are not saying drinking alcohol decreases your intake but the act of sipping any drink will cause you to slow down and recognize signs of fullness. It also fills your stomach with liquid helping you to feel more full. Of course water is a great calorie-free choice, but other low-calorie drinks can help too. Yes sipping on that glass of wine would do the same thing but don’t forget there is a fair amount of calories in alcoholic beverages.
  • Set mood lighting. Dimmer lights makes you feel more calm which can slow down eating.
  • Put your fork down in between bites. This forces you to slow down and really be mindful of each bite you are taking, not to mention ensures your fork is being used as just that, a fork and not a shovel.
  • Have a conversation. Your mouth can’t be used for both at the same time (or at least it be shouldn’t as we are in the process of teaching our 4-year-old!). Of course this can enhance the experience strengthening your intake memory and decreasing intake in later meals.
  • Eat with your non-dominant hand. The awkwardness will probably slow down the whole eating process and cause you to take smaller bites.
  • Share your meals with a slow eater. Maybe their habits will rub off!

Lastly, techniques such as logging your food and keeping food wrappers or visuals of your last meal can strengthen your memory.

What ways have you found to be more mindful while eating? Let us know on our facebook page!


E. Robinson, P. Aveyard, A. Daley, K. Jolly, A. Lewis, D. Lycett, S. Higgs. Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013; DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.112.045245

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