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We’ve all heard it’s not good to eat in front of the TV, but it’s not just about potentially ruining our living room upholstery.

Studies show that eating while distracted may lead to a few more handfuls of popcorn, and an impaired judgment of just how much we’ve eaten in one sitting. And a new research review suggests recalling memories of recent meals may reduce the amount of food we consume later on, while distractions during mealtime may lead to eating more.

The Study

The review, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, set out to see whether cognitive processes, like memory, can influence the amount of food we eat.

The research team, headed by Eric Robinson of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society, analyzed 24 studies (reported between 1995 and 2012) that examined the effects of memory, distraction, awareness, or attention on food intake. To be included in the review, the studies had to meet certain criteria — participants had to be at least 18-years-old, all studies needed to have experimental designs, all experiments needed a control condition, and studies were required to measure food intake. After combining the results of the studies, the researchers compared the effect of distraction on current meals as well as food eaten later in the day. They found recalling memories of food consumed earlier in the day — for example, by keeping a food journal — tended to reduce calorie intake later on. Plus, when distracted (like by a television, music, or reading), people ate more food immediately and tended to increase intake even more at later meals.

The main conclusion: As the memory of this morning’s bagel fades, often fueled by distractions like reading or watching a movie, we may eat more for lunch, dinner, or snacks in between. The studies reviewed also suggest attentive eating (actually paying attention to the appearance, flavors, and smells of foods) likely influences food intake and may aid weight loss without tedious calorie counting.

Is It Legit?

Likely. Eating slowly and paying attention to each bite has been shown to reduce calorie intake and support weight loss Decelerated and linear eaters: effect of eating rate on food intake and satiety. Zandian, M., Ioakimidis, I., Bergh, C., et al. Karolinska Institutet, Section of Applied Neuroendocrinology, NVS, and Mandometer and Mandolean Clinics, AB Mando, Novum, Huddinge, Sweeden. Physiological Behaviors, 2009 Feb 16;96(2):270-5. Habituation as a determinant of human food intake. Epstein, L.H., Temple, J.L., Roemmich, J.N. et al. Department of Pediatrics, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, Buffalo, NY. Psychology Review, 2009 Apr;116(2):384-407. . And interestingly enough, research shows people with memory-impairing brain damage often have a disrupted appetite Memory and its role in appetite regulation. Higgs, S., School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, West Midlands, England, United Kingdom. Physiological behavior, 2005 May 19;85(1):67-72. Sensory-specific satiety is intact in amnesics who eat multiple meals. Higgs, S., Williamson, A.C., Rotshtein, P., et al. University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. Psychological Science, 2008 Jul;19(7):623-8. .

Of course, the review isn’t without limitations. It’s important to note that 19 of the 24 studies included participants with a mean body mass index within the healthy range (18.5-24.9), and for the studies that provided participants’ age (21 of them) the average age was about 22-years-old. It would be interesting to review the effects of distracted eating and memory recall on different body types and age groups.

So while cueing up Pandora or flipping on your favorite reality TV show may be a mealtime ritual, this review may be incentive to focus more on your lunch and less on your television.

Do you eat without a book, computer, or TV screen? Do you think distractions affect how much you eat? Let us know in the comment section below, or tweet the author @nicmdermott.

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