Overweight boy with fast food on sofa at home

(© New Africa - stock.adobe.com)

GHENT, Belgium — Eating while distracted is one of the easiest ways to overeat. When you go to the movies and get a large popcorn, think about how easy it is to eat a ton of salty snacks while watching the big screen. Now, think about how much less likely you are to overeat if you’re just sitting down in a room without any distractions. According to researchers with the American Psychological Association, being distracted while doing things like eating could potentially lead to the overindulgence of other everyday pleasures.

Specifically, the study looked at how distraction impacts “hedonic consumption,” which describes buying and using products and engaging in experiences because they make you feel good and not because you actually need them. If we look at U.S. society, especially influencer culture, which often promotes high levels of consumerism, we see that it’s very common. Always having a new skincare product, supplement, purse, perfume, or whatever else is pushed in your face through the algorithm is the new reality.

“On any given day, a person may take great pleasure from one or more of these activities, yet people often consume more hedonic goods than they want or than is good for them,” says lead author Stephen Lee Murphy, PhD, of Ghent University in a media release.

In this study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers led an experiment involving 122 participants who were mostly young females between the ages of 18 and 24 who reported on how much they expected to enjoy their lunch before eating it. After, they were asked to eat their lunch under one of three conditions: no distraction, moderate distraction (watching a video), and high distraction (playing Tetris). After eating, participants reported their actual enjoyment, satisfaction, desire for further gratification, and the amount consumed. They also reported on snacking they did later in the day.

Those who ate while distracted reported enjoying and being satisfied by their food less, which was linked with increased snacking afterward and wanting further gratification. The team thinks this effect, which they call “hedonic compensation,” applies to things other than eating. For instance, people who are watching a movie or playing a game are more likely to also check social media or have a YouTube video up to make up for lack of enjoyment from the original activity.

Woman eating noodles as late night dinner in front of computer in dark room
Eating while distracted is one of the easiest ways to overeat. (© Photoboyko – stock.adobe.com)

As a dietitian, I see this a lot. A lot of people like to eat their meals with a YouTube video playing or with their phone in hand. A lot of people report that they felt they weren’t fully present with their meal, ate it quicker than they normally would, and ended up going back for more — even if they felt they ate enough. Distracted eating can cause you to eat quicker, which usually means you chewed your food less frequently. Chewing enough is one of the best ways to support digestion and give your body time to process what you’ve eaten so that you can feel satisfied. Scarfing food down gets the job done, but rushed eating isn’t optimal.

Additionally, the researchers followed 220 participants between the ages of 18 to 71 for a week to explore things beyond food. The participants, who were mostly women, filled out seven brief surveys per day regarding their levels of hedonic consumption, distraction, and satisfaction. Just as the lunch experiment showed, when people were distracted during meals, their enjoyment and satisfaction fell while their need for further gratification increased.

“Overconsumption often results due to a lack of self-control,” says Murphy. “However, our findings suggest overconsumption may also often be driven by the simple human desire to reach a certain level of enjoyment from an activity. When distraction gets in the way, it’s likely we may try to compensate by consuming more.”

Looking ahead, Murphy and his colleagues plan to conduct further research to replicate and confirm the proposed hedonic compensation effect. If the additional research confirms it, they plan to apply interventions that could help people pay more attention to their consumption experiences to hopefully lower overconsumption.

“By understanding the key drivers of hedonic overconsumption, we can develop strategies to help prevent its occurrence,” Murphy concludes.

In the digital wellness space, trends are what keeps the industry alive. Chlorophyll water, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, magnesium supplements, beef liver pills, raw milk, and avocado oil are all examples of trends that have had their spotlight in the wellness world online in the last three years alone. It’s made some of these products literally sell out online and in stores because people are influenced to buy them.

The basics of eating a balanced plate and eating a healthy variety of proteins, carbs, healthy fats, and fiber aren’t attractive to hear. People want the newest trend or fad to make health exciting. The reality is that the answer to health isn’t about consuming the most supplements or products at all but about getting back to the basics. As this research shows, this is likely applicable to different areas of life, too.

About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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