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Taking a Closer Look at Distracted Eating

How often do you sit down at the table with your food..and just eat? No scrolling on your phone with one hand and eating with the other, no TV on in front of you, no laptop open checking emails?

If you answered "never" or "rarely", you're not alone! As a society, we have such a hard time just eating. Nearly every client I've ever worked with, the friends and family I've talked to about it, and I myself had slipped into the habit of scrolling on my phone before I took a step back and questioned whether it was a supportive habit or not. Like many seemingly harmless habits, eating while distracted can have some much bigger implications if left unchecked.

There are three main reasons we find it so hard to eat without distractions:

1. We've trained our brains to be distracted, constantly looking for something else that's more stimulating to focus on

2. We're uncomfortable with mono-tasking while eating because it forces us to sit with our own thoughts

3. It's an unconscious, ingrained habit - it has just become part of the eating routine

Notice that none of these reasons really has to do with food itself, but as you'll see, eating while distracted can have a big impact on your relationship with food and eating habits themselves.

First, let's take a closer look at those three reasons:

1. We've trained our brains to be distracted

With the ability to be constantly connected to a stream of information or "content" - whether it's from a TV, phone, email, or the internet - we've trained our brains to be distracted.

Many of us wake up and start our day by checking our phones. Especially with something like social media, which we've curated to be an endless series of images that exactly fit our taste, we get a BIG dopamine spike. Then, we try to move on to (potentially) much less enjoyable tasks like responding to work emails. After that big dopamine spike, your brain is like "wait, this isn't as fun as that other thing, let's go back to that" and you may find yourself constantly drawn away from work tasks to social media or other enjoyable activities that increase dopamine.

Another effect that social media has had on our brains is to only pay attention to each thing, each photo or video, for a few moments then move on. If your brain is used to focusing on something new every 5 seconds, it makes sense that our ability to focus for long periods has diminished.

Because scrolling on social media takes very little active thought, it's also easy to do while doing other tasks that also don't require a ton of active thought, like eating. The physical act of putting food on the fork and putting it in our mouths is so ingrained that we don't technically have to pay attention - you can "zone out" for an entire meal and the food will still make it's way into your body.

2. We're too uncomfortable to mono-task and with sit just our thoughts while we eat

As a culture, we are told that multi-tasking is essential - we should combine tasks to be efficient, productive, and successful. This means when you're on your lunch break, why not catch up on emails? or run errands and eat in the car?

The downside of feeling like we need to be doing for all hours of the day, is that when we are faced with an activity like eating, it just feels like it's not enough and our minds start racing. Not only are we uncomfortable just eating, but the thoughts that come up during those moments may be uncomfortable themselves. Whether it's thoughts that you should be multi-tasking or anxieties about another area of life, like work, family, or relationship problems - sitting down to eat may be overwhelming with those thoughts coming through.

When you feel discomfort, it's natural to want to do something that relieves the feeling. In the case of eating, if the thoughts are uncomfortable to sit with, your initial reaction may be to drown out the thoughts with other stimulation - activities like your phone, TV, or computer that don't require a lot of energy easily fill that void.

The problem is, however, that if we never give our brains space to breathe, if we are constantly sort of glazed over with entertainment that's only giving us surface level thoughts, there's no room for deep, important thoughts to come through that are necessary to work through those problems. I think we deserve and need that time to turn our brain "off" and be distracted sometimes - I just want to make the case for not doing it while eating.

We need to build up our "emotional muscles" and it's not realistic to go from never processing whatever thoughts are coming up when you take a moment to yourself to feeling all of the feelings. This is why, if you are eating while distracted for every meal, I recommend starting slowly. Keep reading for my tips on how to do this in a supportive way.

3. It's become a habit to eat while distracted

Another very real possibility is that eating while distracted has just become an integral part of your eating habits. Maybe you grew up eating dinner in front of the TV or had a TV always on in the kitchen so being entertained by an outside source has always been associated with sitting down to eat. Maybe since you started working from home over the last year and work and home life have blended, it's become a habit (or a necessity with an overbooked schedule) to eat lunch while you're in a Zoom meeting.

If you don't consciously uncouple the action of eating and doing something else at the same time, it can be a difficult, but entirely possible, habit to break.

Why does it matter? Why is it an unsupportive practice to have distractions while we eat?

While it may seem harmless to scroll on your phone while you eat, there are some consequences that are worth discussing.

Decreased potential satisfaction from the meal

When we get in the habit of treating eating as a passive action, rather than a chance to connect with our food, check in with our bodies, and nourish ourselves - it makes sense that we won't be able to get as much satisfaction from the experience. It's just treated like something going on in the background, rather than the main event.

It's not possible to be fully experiencing the different tastes, textures, and aromas of the food if you're just not paying attention to them.

If you're distracted, you are missing out on the sensory aspects of eating which play a huge part in actually enjoying the food itself.

The two aspects of feeling "finished" with a meal are fullness and satisfaction. If you aren't giving yourself the chance to feel satisfied by the meal, it may feel like you are never fully finished eating, always feeling like you need something more (there are many factors that play into never feeling satisfied - a full post for another day!).

Missing fullness cues

A couple things can happen when you are eating when distracted related to fullness. One, you may eat past fullness without realizing it, and only register that you're full once it's to the point of being uncomfortable. It's not until you feel the sensation of being physically uncomfortable that your attention is brought back to the food itself. This may make give the eating experience a negative feeling overall, further decreasing the satisfaction and pleasure you're getting out of the meal.

Another potential outcome is that you realize that you're comfortably full but you missed out on the sensory aspects of eating, i.e. you never really tasted the food, so you choose to continue eating, past comfortable fullness, so you have a chance to really taste the flavors and experience the meal.

Remember, feeling satisfied is an essential part of feeling "complete" with a meal.

If you are consistently eating past the point of fullness, whether it's because of distractions or for another reason, it can negatively impact your relationship with food.

Eating more quickly than you meant to

One of the most common consequences of eating while distracted is eating too fast. It's so common that I wrote a whole article on it which you can read here after getting feedback that this is something a lot of you experience.

Especially if you are watching a fast-paced, exciting show, engaged in a lively conversation, or otherwise in a heightened state of emotion (or you've reached the point of primal hunger - read all about that here ), it's very common to eat quickly.

Eating quickly not only makes eating feel chaotic, but it also may make you feel like you can't trust yourself around certain foods when really it was just necessary to remove distractions. It also further decreases the satisfaction potential since you aren't really giving your taste buds a chance to register the flavors of the food when it's eaten very quickly.

So how do you break the cycle?

Here are three steps to work though if you've realized that eating with distractions is negatively affecting you.

Bring awareness to what's going on

What thoughts are coming up when you sit down to eat? If they are thoughts that you should be doing more, how can you re-prioritize your own well-being over the needs of your to-do list? Remind yourself that you physically and mentally need and deserve a chance to sit and nourish your body, free from distractions. Your tasks can wait, this time is for you.

You may also find that you're engaging in harsh self-talk and criticism related to food and your body, so to avoid these thoughts you want to think about anything other than food while you're eating. This may work for the duration of the meal, but those negative comments will likely come right back when the meal is over.

Offer yourself compassion

Whether it's just become a habit as you work from home or the stresses in your life have become so overwhelming that you just can't sit with your own thoughts while you eat. Remind yourself that you're not doing anything wrong, your feelings are valid, and the coping strategies you've used in the past have served you in some way.

Also remind yourself that your emotions deserve to be dealt with and worked through. If working through them alone is too overwhelming, reach out to your support systems, including professional support when necessary.

Take manageable steps to remove distractions

If you are simply uncomfortable with the act of just eating or constantly feel like you need distractions throughout the day and while you eat is no exception - it may take some time to bring yourself back to neutral. I recommend setting limits on the time you spend on social media, or watching TV if it is affecting your relationship with food and your eating habits.

If you find that breakfast is a meal you always eat with distractions, try leaving your phone on airplane mode or in another room. Our morning habits have the ability to set the tone for our whole day and if you are starting the day in a distracted state, it's much more likely you will feel mentally scattered throughout the day.

Start with ONE meal

Pick one meal that you have the most control over, i.e. ideally a meal you are alone or in a controlled setting. Start with one meal on one day and see how it feels.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the food taste any differently?

  • Am I noticing any new flavors or textures?

  • What feelings are coming up?

  • Am I able to sit with those feelings for the duration of the meal?

  • Does the amount of food I end up eating change?

  • Does I feel more satisfied from the meal?

If it's too overwhelming to sit with your feelings or the temptations of distractions are just too much, it's okay. Just bringing awareness to it and sitting with it for a moment is progress. Remember - progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Do you struggle with eating while distracted? Have you noticed that it's affect your eating habits or relationship with food? If you found this article helpful, I would love to know! Let me know in the comments below or reach out to me on instagram @nutrimsa I would love to connect with you!



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