Mindless vs. Distracted Eating: One makes you eat less.

May 12, 2020 10:47:00AM

Everyone’s work-from-home setup looks different. You may have a proper desk like you have at work, complete with a stocked snack drawer. You may be stationed with easy access to your pantry. You may have your setup right in your kitchen, staring down the fridge all day. Routines look different than they did when you were going into the office, and your lunch breaks are no exception.

Do you take the time to sit and eat? You may not need to carve out that time to eat lunch.

A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh found that there’s a difference between mindless eating and distracted eating. One makes you eat more, the other makes you eat less. Can you guess which is which? Is there one to blame for our 'Quarantine 15'?

Mindless eating


Mindless eating, as the name suggests, is when you eat without thinking. Think downing a bag of chips while you’re watching Netflix, grabbing a snack every time you pass the food table at a cookout, or eating more trail mix than you wanted to because your conference call went over time. 

Mindless eating is unplanned and you’re not paying a bit of attention to what you’re eating or how much. Your focus is elsewhere. 

Since you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating, you’ll have a tendency to eat something you might not have chosen if you were paying attention, or you eat more than you would have if you were thinking about what you were putting in your mouth.

There can be an emotional element to mindless eating, especially if you’re feeling upset or stressed. As you might expect, there’s a lot of potential to go overboard... so this could easily be a cause for your 'Quarantine 15' or whatever version of that you're personally battling. (It's OK, we're all struggling in these ways together.)

Distracted eating

You might think that distracted eating is the same as mindless eating, but there is one key difference that changes how much you end up eating. 

Distracted eating happens during a planned meal or snack. For example, you eat lunch at lunch time, per usual. But, you end up doing something else while you’re eating your meal, like checking email or finishing up your expense reports.  The study found that eating while distracted causes you to eat less than your normal meal.

It appears that being absorbed in your secondary activity may dampen not only your appetite, but your memory of what you ate and how much. 

Is distracted eating a weight loss strategy?

First off, eating less because you were distracted is likely not a long-term weight loss strategy. If you don’t eat what you might have eaten if you were paying attention, you may end up hungry later and add extra snacks to your day. Or, you may not feel as satisfied after a meal since you essentially missed out on the sensory experience that comes with sitting down to good food. A better approach...

Mindful eating


With mindful eating, on the other hand, you focus on the food you’re eating – how your meal looks, the taste, the texture, the mouthfeel, how you feel when you eat it, and how you feel when you’re finished. Mindful eating makes an entire sensory and emotional experience out of eating.

There are several benefits to using mealtime to focus on only the meal you’re eating:

  • Mindful eating helps you pick up on your body’s hunger and satiety signals. If you’re paying attention to just what you’re eating, you sense when you’re hungry, when you’re getting full, and when you’re full enough to stop eating.
  • Eating mindfully is also a pleasurable experience and helps you get enjoyment out of the food you eat. Read this article for more information on mindful eating.

Sometimes, life gets busy, especially when you’re working from home. Distracted eating happens from time to time, and that’s okay. The key is to eat mindfully at every opportunity that you can, and avoid mindless eating at all costs. 

If you have to, put systems in place to bring awareness to what you’re eating:

  • Clear out the snack drawer so that you have to walk into the kitchen to get food.
  • Put something in front of the snacks that you tend to mindlessly eat, so that you have to consciously move something out of the way to get to them.
  • Have healthy foods ready to eat for those times you know you’ll be looking for a convenient choice.
There’s nothing wrong with snacking, as long as you are in the driver’s seat, making the conscious decision to snack, and having total control over what you’re eating.
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