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Does Eating While Distracted Lead to Unwanted Weight Gain?

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Does Eating While Distracted Lead to Unwanted Weight Gain?

— By Dawn Sweet, Ph.D.

Distracted eating could lead to unintended weight gain and an increase in BMI, while mindful eating has been shown to mitigate weight gain.

Distracted eating is problematic because it can lead to unintended weight gain and an increase patients’ BMI, each of which can lead to negative weight-related health outcomes. Though not immediately considered as part of weight management, cognitive processes — such as episodic memory for recent eating — are being investigated in the context of BMI. 1,2 Multitasking, e.g. watching TV while eating, and inattention are tightly interwoven into the fabric of daily life such that many adults routinely eat while tackling a work-related task over lunch, playing computer games, or scrolling through their phones.3,4,5 Research now clearly shows that distracted eating, defined as inattention to food consumption, increases food consumption at meal times, which leads to unintended weight gain and increase in BMI.1,2

Attention and Memory-Based Processes

Episodic memory is one’s ability to learn, store, and retrieve autobiographical information about a specific personal experience in day-to-day life.6 When we eat, we are activating our episodic memory for that meal. Inattention to the present moment could affect episodic memory while eating.

In a meta-analysis of 24 studies2, proximal and distal effects of food intake were found relative to memory. Distracted eating resulted in a moderate increase in immediate food consumption while the food intake increased more substantially during later food intake. As noted in the meta-analysis, in studies that used a control condition and a condition where memory for previous food was enhanced, food consumption increased in the control condition. There was evidence that the memory enhancement condition decreased food consumption. Overall, distracted eating was found to lead to greater food intake.

In a recent study1 that conformed to a survey design (N = 846; Mage = 33.0; SD = 14.3; MBMI = 24.6 kg/m2; SD = 5.6 kg/m2), participants completed the Mindful Eating Questionnaire, provided self-reported BMI, and responded to items related to the last time they ate or drank, how vivid their memory was for that eating episode, and their current appetite. Participants also completed items that related to their eating habits during the previous 12-month period and during the previous seven days.

Results did not reveal an association between episodic memory and BMI, thus previous research7 was not supported. It should be noted this non-significant association could be a function of the study’s design. Additional research on episodic memory and weight gain is needed. There was, however, evidence for a positive relationship between BMI and distracted eating and negative relationship between mindful eating BMI. This study suggests mindful eating for weight management could mitigate inattention to food while eating and reduce the risk of unintentional weight gain and increases in BMI.

Mindful Eating and Weight Loss

Previous research8 has found that mindful eating could reduce automatic or distracted eating. Because we routinely multitask, eating while performing another task has become habituated behavior for many adults. Mindful eating is one strategy to mitigate eating driven by habituation.

Mindfulness is defined as purposeful and non-judgmental attention to the present moment.9

Mindful eating is a form of mindfulness where full attention is given to the act of eating. 10 This purposeful attention to food can disrupt automatic and habituated responses. Mindful eating can lead to weight loss because it increases sensitivity to hunger and satiety cues.

Strategies for Your Patients As They Begin a Mindful Eating Practice

  • Make eating your primary task. Turn off the TV, step away from the computer, and put down your phone.
  • Focus on the taste, smell, and texture of your food.
  • Notice how your body feels — is it sending you a signal that you are full? If so, listen to that signal.

Implications for Clinical Practice

Health care providers should consider talking with patients about their eating patterns and their associated consequences. Obesity is a complex chronic health condition with a multitude of factors to consider. Eating patterns is one such factor. A patient’s habituated behaviors at mealtime could lead to unintended weight gain and begin a cascade of negative health consequences. In addition to talking to patients about mindful eating, talking with patients about the benefits of nutritionally formulated meal replacements could help jumpstart their mindful eating practice. Nutritionally formulated pre-packaged meal replacements provide necessary proteins, fiber, vitamins, and minerals offers patients convenience and essential nutrition.


1 Associations between body mass index and episodic memory for recent eating, mindful eating, and cognitive distraction: A cross-sectional study

2 Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating

3 Smartphone use while eating increases caloric ingestion

4 Daily distracted consumption patterns and their relationship with BMI

5 Playing a computer game during lunch affects fullness, memory for lunch, and later snack intake

6 The episodic memory system: Neurocircuitry and disorders

7 Memory and eating: a bidirectional relationship implicated in obesity

8 Mindfulness approaches and weight loss, weight maintenance, and weight regain

9  Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future

10 Mindful eating: The art of presence while you eat

About the Author: Dr. Dawn M. Sweet has over 20 years of experience in the field of communication. Dr. Sweet has given several invited talks to and workshops for academic and private sector audiences on the role of nonverbal and verbal communication in achieving positive outcomes and mitigating bias. Her research has been published in several top ranked peer-review journals, and it has been featured on NPR’s River to River / All Things Considered, Buzzfeed, and Science Daily. Her research has also been used to inform expert testimony.

About Robard: For 45 years, Robard Corporation’s medical obesity treatment programs and nutrition products have been utilized by physicians, surgeons and hospitals across the United States to successfully treat patients living with obesity. To learn more about us and how we can help your practice and patients, visit us online at, email us at, or call (800) 222-9201.

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