Break the habit of distracted eating

In my recent post on the topic of stress eating, I offered some tips on how to be a more discriminating eater of those foods many classify as treats. Being a mindful eater lets you have your cake and eat it too. But there can be another problem if you’re staying at home during these stressful times for days on end: distracted eating.

For some people, distracted eating – munching while you’re watching TV or reading – can lead to consuming much too much but for others, distracted eating may be just the solution for the loss of appetite or inability to eat while under stress.

In most cases, distracted eating, whether you’re chomping away on carrots or munching on chips, is not a recipe for enjoying your food. If you do it long enough, it’s simply a habit or a conditioned response.
If eating in front of the TV or while reading a book is indeed a habit of yours, under normal conditions, it might not take any toll on your health. But these days, with the opportunity to binge watch programs or curl up with a good book all day long, day after day, it can be another story.

Do this a number of times and simply switching on the remote or sitting in your favourite chair to read can be enough to elicit a sense of hunger – even if you have just eaten a full meal.

Don’t be a Pavlov dog
Consider the experiments of Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov which demonstrated that certain stimuli –which may have nothing to do with hunger- can trigger the desire to eat. In his early experiments with dogs, technicians offered dogs food and when they began eating, they started to salivate. After the technicians presented the food 3 or 4 times, just seeing the technician prompted the animals to salivate. Pavlov also carried out his research using other stimuli such as metronomes. He found that turning on the metronomes was all that was required to make the animals want to eat.

He called this a conditioned response.

Now think of yourself. Does sitting down in front of the television and just turning on the remote have the same effect on you? If so, that’s your conditioned response. Or maybe it’s curling up in your favourite spot with a good book that makes you think of eating. Whatever your stimulus, it’s likely leading to distracted or mindless eating. The question is, though, if you’re engrossed in the news, a good movie or a great book, are you really enjoying and paying attention to what and how much you’re eating? You could have an oversized bowl of popcorn while watching the Tiger King, and a tiger could have eaten half your bowl without your noticing it wasn’t you who emptied it. (OK- I’m exaggerating. You would have noticed the tiger but not that the bowl was being emptied.)

Now back to Pavlov’s dogs and your habits. Simply not responding to a stimulus, for example, not eating sitting in front of the TV, over a number of days will make it easier to break the habit. Initially it could be really tough – really, really tough, in fact.

Making it a healthy snack will still trigger the desire to eat and won’t help break the habit.

There are a few things that can help to ease the pain of starting to break the habit. If you’re a reader, change the room or chair that you sit in. The same goes for watching TV.

If you really do want to eat, put the book down or either pause the program or go during a commercial and sit at the table where you eat your meals. If it’s normally in front of the TV, go elsewhere to eat. Enjoy what you’re eating. If it’s only a commercial break, make it small and come back later to savour something more. At least enjoy every mouthful.

And this way, you will associate eating where the consumption of food is not done out of habit. It will be worth the small amount of pain to get rid of the conditioned response.


Up next: Why distracted eating can be the way to go for those who can’t eat in times of stress.

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Tips and Tricks

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

Get Enlightened Eater in your inbox

Subscribe to get the latest nutrition news, fresh recipes and more!

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: