When was the last time you had a meal without scrolling on your phone or catching up on a TV show? This “distracted eating” might be causing you to overindulge and gain weight.

Multitasking has become an essential aspect of our fast-paced lives, even while we eat. Although it might seem harmless, eating while engaging in other activities, such as watching TV, has been associated with an increase in food intake. Still, it was not until recently that scientists started to understand the brain mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. 

How does the brain process taste information?

There are two brain regions that are responsible for the perception of taste: the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. The first region identifies the taste quality (sweet, salty, sour or bitter) and intensity, and communicates with the orbitofrontal cortex which, in turn, assigns a reward value to the food, associated with pleasantness.

However, new research reveals that the way our brains process taste information can be affected by distracted eating. In a recent study, researchers evaluated the neural activity of forty-one subjects who drank a fixed amount of chocolate milk while performing tasks that were either highly or slightly distracting, in a brain scanner. For these visual tasks, participants were asked to push a button when presented with pictures belonging to a certain category (furniture, tools, or toys). In the highly distracting session, pictures were displayed on the screen at a higher speed, thus requiring a higher attention load. Then, the effect of distraction on the brain’s perception of taste was evaluated as well as the participants’ tendency to eat chocolate snacks after the session. 

Young Adult Woman's First Bite of Delicious Macaroons.
If you are distracted when you eat, your brain might not process taste information as it should, which might lead you to consume more food later in the day.

Distracted eating alters taste perception and might lead to overeating 

The brain scans revealed that the regions responsible for taste-processing communicated less effectively with each other when the subjects were highly distracted while drinking the chocolate milk. In addition, doing the tasks that required a high attention load attenuated the insular response to taste in some of the participants, who ended up eating more snacks later. In short, if you are distracted when you eat, your brain might not process taste information as it should, which might lead you to consume more food later in the day. However, not all subjects presented a decrease in insular response, suggesting that some people might be less affected by the effect of distraction on taste perception and, consequently, on later food intake. The researchers also proposed that how strong a taste is might influence how distraction affects the way our brains process food-related information. In fact, those who drank the low-sweetness chocolate milk were more likely to eat more afterward than those who drank the high-sweetness drink. It seems that, since the taste of the sweeter drink was more outstanding, its perception was less suppressed by highly distracting tasks.

In sum, this study provided insight about some of the brain processes that are affected by distracted eating and suggested that being mindful and fully present when we eat could prevent us from eating too much. We challenge you to try one of the following mindful eating exercises today, which you can easily do even if you live with other people. You can ask them to join you!

  1. Choose a meal that you will commit to eat without distractions.
  2. Turn off or put away all electronic devices that might distract you and get away from your work desk.
  3. While eating, bring full awareness to each bite of food, using all of your senses to experience it. 

If you have a bit more time, try this mindful eating meditation by Susan McClain, our mindfulness coach at LIFE Apps, which requires you to ditch the electronics and just be present during your meal:

  1. Make a dish that you like. Put it in front of you and notice the different colors, textures, and aromas. 

  2. Pick a bite of food with a fork. Notice its color, texture, and aroma.
  3. Take a bite. Pay attention to the texture and the flavors you can taste. Notice any salt, pepper, or vinegar, and any other spices.
  4. As you take more bites, stop and tune in to how your body feels. Are you satisfied? Do you feel like you need a bite of something else?
  5. At the end of your meal, take a moment to be thankful for what you just enjoyed.