Multi-tasking during meals is a no-no, yet most of us do it every day. Eating while emailing? I'm guilty. Having dinner while watching TV? Yep, I do that, too. Noshing on breakfast while walking to my car (and then into the office) in the mornings? Mmmhmm. Now, a new study abstract published in the Journal of Health Psychology has found the very worst activity to mix with your meals: eating while you walk.
Researchers at the University of Surrey in England looked at three groups of women to test multiple forms of distracted snacking. One group watched a 5-minute clip of "Friends" on TV while eating a cereal bar; another ate that cereal bar while walking; the third group ate the bar while sitting opposite a friend and talking. After the experiment, all of the groups were asked to complete a questionnaire and taste-test chocolate, carrot sticks, grapes, and potato chips. (Looking to conquer your weight issues once and for all? Prevention magazine can help make that happen—get a FREE trial + 12 FREE gifts!)
When the study participants left, the researchers measured how much of each snack each group ate and found that the women who'd been asked to eat while walking consumed 5 times more chocolate than the other groups. (Finally, an explanation for the ever-dwindling stash of candy I keep in my desk drawer.)
Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in mindful eating and author of EAT-Q: Unlock the Weight Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence, says she thinks it's because of the number of distractions that can pop up while you're on the go.
"When you're walking, you're engaged in so many activities, like paying attention to where you're going and trying not to run into things," Albers said. "It's next to impossible to actually focus on what you're eating, which can keep you from processing how it's having an impact on your hunger."
The study authors also hypothesized that because walking is a form of exercise, it may be used as form of justification for eating more later on.
If you can't avoid eating while walking, Albers suggests wearing your headphones.
"They can help block out external noises and minimize the number of distractions," she said, "which means you can be more mindful about what you're eating."
It also doesn't hurt to get a bit more mindful about when and where you eat in general, Albers said, who offered these 5 "S"s for staying distraction-free when you eat:
1. Sit down.
"Only eat when you're off your feet," Albers said.
When you sit, you're inherently more focused, which means you're more likely to make better choices and give your body a chance to recognize how much you're consuming—and how full you are after you eat, preventing a pig-out later on.
2. Slowly chew.
This is nearly impossible to do in any of the scenarios the researchers tested, Albers said.
"Whether you're eating while walking, chatting with friends, or watching TV, it's common to match your eating pace to whatever pace that's around you."
Albers' trick: eat with your non-dominant hand, which can slow you down by about 30 percent, she said. "And if you must eat while walking, maybe hum a mellow tune in your head, which can help you slow down."
This is the fun part—the part where you really get to taste what you're eating and recognize that piece of fruit or granola bar or whatever it is you're munching on as the delicious sustenance it is. To learn how to really taste your food, do a little experiment: Eat just five raisins one at a time, as slowly and mindfully as you can, and write down what they taste like, how they feel in your mouth, how the texture changed as you chewed them, and so forth.
4. Simplify your environment.
When Albers eats at her desk (Rejoice! Even mindfulness experts do this!), she swivels her chair away from her computer monitor until she finishes lunch. She also turns off her phone.
"Even if my cell phone is across the room, if I hear it ding, my attention goes from my plate to who's trying to contact me," she said.
Also put healthy food in a convenient location, and avoid buying junk food that you know you won't be able to resist.
5. Smile between bites.
It may sound silly, but Albers said it creates a gap moment between the thought, "I want more," and actually having another bite.
"Smiling also pumps feel-good chemicals throughout your body that can help reduce stress and emotional eating," she said.