In the old days—maybe five years ago—dieters were warned against combining eating with other activities such as reading, watching television, looking at the computer, studying or taking care of desk work. Now talking or texting on the cell phone and perhaps playing with the iPad (if one is lucky enough to have one) can be added to the list of things forbidden while eating is in progress. I wondered how many people know or even care about these so-called dieting rules. During this season of sidewalk dining, it is easy to stare at what people are doing during a meal or snack as often their tables are practically in the path of passing walkers. A quick survey during a warm, sunny lunchtime interval indicated that few eaters had heard about not multitasking while eating. A good number were tapping away at a computer keyboard with one hand and holding up a sandwich so it would not drip with the other. Many were on their phones, biting into and chewing sandwiches while they chatted. Several others had stopped eating for a few minutes to do some texting and those not engaged with their electronic companions were reading newspapers or books. A few were talking intently but I saw no adult concentrating only on eating one bite after another without any other on-going activity. The only individual doing this was a toddler intent on bringing one Cheerio at a time into his mouth without dropping it on his chin.
According to experts on how to control overeating, multitasking while eating is a prescription for eating too much. Presumably if you do not pay full attention to every bite that goes into your mouth, you will eat more than you intended or eat foods that are incompatible with your diet or attempts to keep your weight stable. For example, you order a sandwich and fries or potato chips surround it. You look at the plate, decide that you can’t possibly eat the fries or chips, push them aside, and start on the sandwich. But your phone rings, your computer signals a new e-mail, your dining companion starts to tell you a fascinating story or you become engrossed in a book. Your hand reaches out to the fries or chips and, without realizing it, you end up eating all of them. When your hand encounters emptiness, you stop, horrified at what you have consumed. “See,” your inner conscience chides you, “you should have been paying attention. Now look at how many calories you just ate.”
But is this true? Would we eat less if we paid attention only to our eating and nothing else? If you are eating alone and the only thing that keeps you company at a meal is your napkin and maybe a dog waiting for a handout, would you eat less than if you were watching television or texting a friend? I suspect the answer is no. I doubt that someone who sits and has nothing to do but count the number of chews it takes before a carrot slice can be swallowed will end up eating less than someone engrossed in a good book. Indeed, the individual doing nothing but eating might decide that he or she has the right to eat something enjoyable and presumably fattening to compensate for the boredom of having nothing else to do.
However, just to be sure that multitasking while eating does not lead to the consumption of too many calories, follow the simple guidelines below.
Eating alone at home? Serve yourself everything you plan on eating and eat somewhere other than in the kitchen. Do not go back and take more food just so you can keep on watching television, talk on the phone, or read. As long as the portion you served yourself represents everything that you should be eating and drinking for that meal, it doesn’t really matter whether you pay attention to every morsel you put into your mouth.
Eating alone in a restaurant? Be mindful of what you order and remove temptations before they arrive on your plate by alerting your server to substitutions. If chips do come with the sandwich ask if you can have a salad instead and if necessary pay extra. (It is cheaper than going to a Weight Watchers meeting.) Make sure the salad dressing is not dumped on your salad and don’t mindlessly dump it on yourself. If something arrives that you would like to eat but should not, such as fries, ask that they to be taken back or if dining outside, feed them to the squirrels. Here’s a minor but important point: Don’t read and soak bread in the saucer of olive oil. Each dunk is probably about 14 grams of fat and almost 200 calories.
Eating at work? Here it is important to stop working even for five or ten minutes so you can do something relaxing while eating. Don’t answer the phone, tap away at your computer, or feel you have to answer the e-mails on your Blackberry. Take out your book or newspaper or find a colleague and relax while you are eating. But also be careful about what you eat. If the local greasy spoons offer only highly caloric foods, it won’t matter how mindful you are of what you are eating. You will still eat too many calories. Bring your lunch or find a local restaurant with more nutritious food.
Finally, the best way to multitask while eating is to share your meal with someone you want to be with. People rarely overeat under such circumstances. Novels are filled with narratives of shared meals and rarely, if ever, do these episodes lead to one of the parties worrying about eating too much.