Using technology during mealtimes may decrease food intake

Research on “Cognitive distraction at mealtime decreases amount consumed in healthy young adults: A randomized crossover exploratory study”  has been lead by Carli A. Liguori.

She conducted the research while earning a master’s degree in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The findings of this research were recently published in the Journal of Nutrition.

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 any distractions.

The game, called Rapid Visual Information Processing, tests users’ 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.

Rapid Visual Information Processing  randomly flashes series of digits on the computer screen at the rate of one per second. Participants in this study were instructed to hit the space bar on the keyboard whenever they saw three consecutive odd numbers appear.

Liguori said : “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.” The big question for authors going into this was “How do you ensure that the participant is distracted?”, and the RVIP was a solution.

The participants, who had fasted for 10 hours before each visit, were told to consume 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 consumed food was weighed and counted before and after it was given to each person.

After a 30-minute rest period, participants were given an exit survey that asked them to recall how many quiches they had been given and the number they had consumed. Also they rated how much they enjoyed the meal as well as their feelings of hunger and fullness.

Liguori hypothesized that, when people ate while using the computer game they would not only consume more food but would have 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 and their meal memory – ability to recall how much they had been served and eaten -was less accurate when they were distracted than when they ate quietly without the game.

However, participants consumption on their second visit was affected by which activity they had performed during their initial visit. The people who engaged in distracted eating on their first visit ate significantly less than their counterparts who didn’t experience the distracted eating condition until their second visit.

Moreover, when participants who engaged in the distracted eating on their first visit were served the quiches on their next visit, “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.

The results of this study suggest that there may be a difference between distracted and mindless eating. Liguori hypothesized that mindless eating may occur when we eat without intending to do so. For example, when we start snacking on chips because they just happen to be in sitting front of us.

Although prior research indicated that people eat more when distracted, Liguori said, her findings could have been influenced by factors such as the type of distraction that was used, the type of food served or by using college students as the study population, limiting the diversity in participants’ age, race, food preferences and motivation to regulate their consumption.

The whole research paper published in The Journal of Nutrition can be found here: