Study Finds Difference Between Mindless and Distracted Eating

A woman eats popcorn while looking at her laptopFor many who are working from home during the COVID-19 crisis, kitchen or dining room tables have transformed into desks and makeshift laptop stations. That includes Carli Liguori, visiting instructor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.

“Appropriately, I use my kitchen table as a standing desk,” said Liguori, who is a registered dietitian and studies the behavioral aspect of food and how people choose to eat.

Long before COVID-19, Liguori was interested in studying the effects of distracted and mindless eating. Working from home or not, who among us hasn’t eaten lunch while checking email, snuck in a snack while driving or squeezed in a bite while on the phone?

Carli Liguori“Especially right now during the coronavirus outbreak, we’re grappling with both mindless and distracted eating. We’re mindlessly snacking on things because they just so happen to be there,” said Liguori. “On the other hand, many of us do prepare our meals with intention. But, when we eat it, a lot of times, our attention isn’t actually going into eating it. We’re distracted by answering emails or watching the news.”

Working and learning from home also creates less of a boundary for personal time, said Liguori, making that lunch hour or coffee break less defined.

“A lot of us have trouble putting work down. We’re working through lunch more so than we were before, and that may lead to even more distracted or mindless eating,” said Liguori.

“Mindless eating occurs when you eat at a time when you were not intending to eat, whereas distracted eating occurs when you plan to eat but are also doing something else,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Liguori conducted what she called “the first study to draw attention to the difference to distracted and mindless eating”—and found there really is a difference.

The study: distracted vs. mindless eating

In the study, published in the Journal of Nutrition earlier this year, Liguori found that not all forms of cognitive distraction result in the same food intake. Her results show that engaging in some forms of “distracted” eating may cause people to eat less, whereas engaging in “mindless” eating may cause people to eat more.

The study was completed while Liguori was earning her master’s degree in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois with co-authors were Cassandra Nikolaus from Washington State University and Sharon M. Nickols-Richardson at the University of Illinois. 

“At a time when obesity is a worldwide epidemic, we know that people are eating as a secondary activity more and more. It is something that we can all relate to,” said Liguori.

The study involved a randomized controlled study of 119 healthy adults. Participants' food consumption was evaluated on two separate occasions: once while they engaged in distracted eating and on another day when they ate without distractions.

The distracted group ate their spinach and cheese quiche while playing a computer game in which they hit the spacebar whenever a specific series of numbers appeared on the screen. The non-distracted group ate their quiche without being asked to complete the task. After a rest period, the participants were offered a second snack of grapes and miniature chocolate chip cookies.

She said the researchers were “very surprised” to observe that the distracted participants who completed the task ate significantly less quiche than their non-distracted counterparts. In addition, there was no difference between the groups in terms of who preferred cookies or grapes afterward. Based on prior research, they expected distracted eaters to eat more quiche and to make more unhealthy choices. 

“Our results suggest there is a difference between the terms ‘mindless eating’ and ‘distracted eating,’ which are often used interchangeably in the current literature,” said Liguori. “We believe there is a case to better differentiate these terms.”

However, before anyone celebrates the results as an excuse to eat in front of the TV, the study has several limitations with regards to its generalizability.

First, the participants were college-aged adults who may be healthier than the general population and are not necessarily a representative sample size. Second, all participants reported a low enjoyment of the quiche as a food choice. Third, the task that was selected in this research study may present a different level of cognitive load than other forms of distracted eating. 

Doing the best we can

While we stay at home, Liguori said it’s important to pay attention to our food and think about the environment in which we’re eating.

“When possible, mindfully prepare the foods you eat. If, inevitably, you find yourself eating distractedly, you are still eating the foods you intended to consume and getting those nutrients into your body,” she said.

She added it’s also important to remind ourselves that “we’re just doing the best we can.”
“There’s a lot going on in the world right now. There’s so much talk on social media about the ‘Quarantine Fifteen,’” she said. “The most important priority is to keep you and your family healthy.”