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Distractions Make it Difficult for Snackers to Know When They are Full

Using Technology During Mealtime May Mean Eating Less

Using technology during mealtimes may decrease the amount of food a person eats, according to a new study by nutrition scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that when 119 young adults consumed a meal while playing a simple computer game for 15 minutes, they ate significantly less than when they ate the same meal without any distractions.

The game, called Rapid Visual Information Processing, tests players’ visual sustained attention and working memory and has been used extensively by researchers in evaluating people for problems such as Alzheimer’s disease and attention-deficit disorder.

The game randomly flashes a series of digits on the computer screen at the rate of one per second. The young adults in the study were told to hit the space bar on the keyboard whenever they saw three consecutive odd numbers appear.

“It’s fairly simple but distracting enough that you have to really be watching it to make sure that you don’t miss a number and are mentally keeping track,” said lead author Carli A. Liguori. “That was a big question for us going into this — how do you ensure that the participant is distracted? And the RVIP was a good solution for that.”

Participants’ food consumption was evaluated on two separate occasions — one day when they played the game while eating and on another day when they ate without distractions. Before each visit, the participants fasted for 10 hours, and they were then told to eat as much as they wanted of 10 miniature quiches while they were either playing the game or eating quietly without distractions for 15 minutes. The food was weighed and counted before and after it was given to each person.

After a 30-minute resting period, participants completed a final survey that asked them to recall how many quiches they had been given and how many they had eaten. They also rated how much they enjoyed the meal as well as their feelings of hunger and fullness.

The findings were surprising. Liguori had hypothesized that, in keeping with previous research, when people ate while playing the computer game they would not only eat more food but would have a poorer memory of what they ate and enjoy it less.

Instead, she found that participants ate less when they were distracted by the computer game. The participants’ ability to recall how much they had been served and eaten was indeed less accurate when they were distracted than when they ate quietly without the game.

Interestingly, participants’ consumption on their second visit was affected by which activity they had performed during their first visit. Those who had engaged in distracted eating on their first visit ate significantly less than those who did not experience the distracted eating condition until their second visit.

Furthermore, when participants who engaged in the distracted eating on their first visit were served the quiches on their next visit, “they behaved as if they were encountering the food for the first time, as evidenced by a lower rate of consumption similar to that of those who began” with the non-distracted meal, according to the study.

“It really seemed to matter whether they were in that distracted eating group first,” said Liguori, who is a visiting faculty member in health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Something about being distracted on their initial visit really seemed to change the amount they consumed during the non-distracted meal. There may be a potent carryover effect between the mechanism of distraction and the novelty of the food served.”

The findings suggest that there may be a difference between distracted eating and mindless eating. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, Liguori hypothesized that they may be distinctly different behaviors with nuances that need to be investigated.

For example, mindless eating may occur when we eat without intending to do so, Liguori hypothesized. For example, we grab a handful of candy from the jar at the office as we walk by or start snacking on chips because they happen to be in front of us.

On the other hand, distracted eating may occur when we participate in a secondary activity such as watching TV or answering emails while we are deliberately eating — for example, when we’re eating dinner, she said.

Liguori conducted the research while earning a master’s degree in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau


Using Technology During Mealtime May Mean Eating Less

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Using Technology During Mealtime May Mean Eating Less. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 Mar 2020 (Originally: 9 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 Mar 2020
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