Who has time for three sit-down meals a day anymore? Judging from the boom in on-the-go meals and snacks that have invaded our national diet, not that many of us.
Unfortunately this "eating on the go" approach may ultimately be causing dieters to consume more food. According to a new study in the Journal of Health Psychology, dieters who ate a cereal bar while walking were more likely to subsequently eat more than those who ate a cereal bar while watching TV or conversing with another participant.
In the study, a group of 60 female participants -- both dieters and non-dieters -- were divided into three groups. All participants were given a cereal bar to consume within five minutes; those in the first group were asked to do so while watching the sitcom Friends, those in the second group did so while conversing with another participant and those in the last group did so while walking. Afterwards, all participants completed a follow-up questionnaire and were provided with four bowls of snacks -- M&Ms, carrot sticks, grapes and chips -- to perform a sham "taste test." (The participants had been told the experiment was meant to determine how different forms of distraction affect the taste of various foods, but in reality, the researchers wanted to know how much of the snacks participants in each group consumed.)
In the "watching TV" group and, to a lesser extent, the "socializing" group, those who identified as dieters consumed less mass and calories when compared with the non-dieters. Somewhat strangely however, dieting participants in the walking group consumed more than their non-dieting counterparts. The difference was particularly stark when it came to M&Ms -- dieters in the walking group consumed five times more chocolate than those who weren’t actively trying to lose weight.
"Eating on the go may make dieters overeat later on in the day," lead author professor Jane Ogden from the University of Surrey said in a statement.
Before you ditch the eat-and-go mentality, keep in mind the study has some issues. For one thing, the sample size is very small. In addition, because the experiment was conducted in a lab setting the researchers are not confident that participants in the walking group subsequently ate more because they had been moving and eating, or because they were embarrassed by the strangeness of the situation (i.e. pacing a corridor and eating a cereal bar while being monitored). And finally, it's not that participants in the "walking" group ate the most overall; just the dieters in that group did. In fact, when taking into account both dieters and non-dieters, participants in the "socializing" group consumed the most calories on average.
Still, this sliver of a study attempts to add a layer of nuance to the existing body of research on how eating while focused on other things -- be it TV, friends or work -- increases the number of calories we consume. When we are distracted and our defenses are down, we don't just eat more but underestimate how much we've eaten. (It's why mindful eating is a good tenet for weight loss.)
Does the fact that many dieters are 'eating on the go' contribute to a tendency to overeat later?
The "yes" gleaned from the study is a tentative one, as the researchers admit that more research is needed. Still, the next time you forgo eggs at a table in favor of a protein bar as you rush out the door, be cognizant of what you eat as the day progresses. It's never a bad idea to pay attention.
"Even though walking had the most impact, any form of distraction, including eating at our desks can lead to weight gain," said Ogden. "When we don't fully concentrate on our meals and the process of taking in food, we fall into a trap of mindless eating where we don't track or recognize the food that has just been consumed."
Related: Angry at Work? Have a Snack.