This is the weird reason your diet is so bad

It’s a frequent sight in diners, restaurants, and family dinner tables the world over. People absentmindedly staring at their phones as they eat. While it makes a certain degree of sense on an entertainment level to browse the web or play an online game while eating, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have just released a new study that illustrates how technology at the table can diminish our dining experience and undermine nutritional needs.

The study found that participants ate far less in general when using technology while eating, potentially leaving some serious nutritional gaps in their consumption habits. 

Researchers monitored the eating behaviors of 119 young adults on two occasions; once while simultaneously playing a video game for 15 minutes, and once without the presence of any technological distractions. Half the participants played the game first while eating, and then ate with no distractions on a second day. The other half ate with no distractions first, and then played the game while eating the second time around.

Participants were asked to play a game called Rapid Visual Information Processing, which is usually used to test the attention and memory skills of people suspected of suffering from Alzheimer’s or ADD.

“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,” explains lead study author Carli A. Liguori in a press release. “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.”

Before both meals participants were told to fast for a full 10 hours, so there’s no way they weren’t hungry. Then, they were told to eat as many quiches as they wanted while either playing the game for 15 minutes or sitting quietly. Next, 30 minutes after each meal subjects were given an exit survey that asked how many quiches they had been provided and how many they ended up eating. Participants also rated how enjoyable the food was, and how full they felt afterward.

Liguori and her team hypothesized that people would eat more food while playing the game; the idea being they would quickly eat as much as possible so they can get back to playing. Surprisingly, the results revealed that people ate less while playing. Predictably, the participants’ ability to recall the details of the meal was much worse after playing the game while eating.

However, there were notable fluctuations depending on which condition the person participated in first. While both groups ate less while using technology, those who played the game first before coming back for another meal with no distractions ate far less than participants who ate quietly first. 

On that note, the participants who played the game first had an odd reaction when they were served the quiches for a second time. These subjects “behaved as if they were encountering the food for the first time.”

Food is one of the greatest pleasures we can all enjoy in life, and that last finding really drives home the fact that staring at our phones while eating significantly takes away from this universal human experience. 

“It really seemed to matter whether they were in that distracted eating group first,” Liguori comments. “Something about being distracted on their initial visit really seemed to change the amount they consumed during the nondistracted meal. There may be a potent carryover effect between the mechanism of distraction and the novelty of the food served.”

Researchers theorize that these fluctuations indicate a fundamental difference between mindless eating and distracted eating. For example, mindless eating would be absentmindedly reaching for a nearby candy without even thinking about it, while distracted eating falls more in line with browsing the internet during dinner.

The study’s authors made it a point to note that their findings may have been influenced by any number of factors, such as the foods used, the distraction method, and the incorporation of only college-aged participants. That being said, these results are still noteworthy because they contradict previous studies that had found distracted eating leads to more consumption. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if distracted eating leads to more or less food consumption. Whether we’re piling food into our mouths quickly so we can get back to our phones, or too preoccupied to finish our meal, it doesn’t exactly paint a happy nutritional picture. 

It’s becoming an almost universally accepted fact that the average adult spends far too much time on their phone already, there’s no reason why we can’t disconnect for a few minutes while eating.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Nutrition.