Finally, you're home from work after a long day. You heat up some leftovers and, ahhh, plop on the couch to catch up on Netflix shows while you munch.
It's a classic (and comfortable) scenario: Americans are known for associating dinner time with TV time. I mean, we literally invented the TV dinner. More recently, the trend of staring at screens while we eat has expanded to computers, laptops, tablets and cell phones.
When was the last time you ate a meal at home or at work -- or even at a restaurant -- without occupying yourself in front of a screen? This article explores why people like to combine eating and entertainment, as well as the potential health consequences of doing so.
Why do we like to eat while watching TV?
Eating without any distractions seems so boring, and I'd go as far to say it's truly difficult. There's just something undeniably comforting about rewatching episodes of your favorite sitcom, fork in hand.
Exactly why we do this varies from person to person.
My personal downfall is that my brain starts to work overtime if I'm left in silence, without a clear task for too long. When I try to eat alone and without distractions, I feel stressed and start shoveling food so I can get back to work or whatever I was doing.
Your childhood might also play a factor. If you grew up eating dinner in the living room rather than at the dining room table, there's a good chance you're inclined to do the same as an adult.
It's also partially a culture thing. Think about it -- during football season, people spend entire weekends perched on the couch with friends and more food than they could ever eat. The majority of restaurants, especially casual sit-down chains, have TVs on every wall. It's not at all surprising that people associate screens with food.
The going theory is that eating in front of a screen gives us a double dopamine hit. Food releases "happy chemicals" in our brains, as does entertainment (potentially to the level of addiction). Combine the two and you've got lots of feel-good things going on in your body, which makes this dynamic duo hard to resist.
What are the consequences of distracted eating?
It's no secret that the increasing rate of obesity and the rise of technology coincide.
No one can say that TV screens and cell phones are the sole reason for America's concerning obesity levels -- easy access to processed foods, inexpensive fast-food chains, access to transportation and an increase in sedentary jobs also contribute. But there's a clear link between screen time and body weight, especially in children and adolescents.
This might simply be due to the fact that more screen time usually means more sedentary time.
But it might also be due to the fact that distracted or hurried eating can cause you to eat more than you would without distractions. When you're distracted, you might not pay attention to how much you eat or how quickly you eat, and you might miss the fullness cue that signals your body is satisfied.
Conversely, paying attention to meals (or mindfully eating) has been linked to eating less later in the day. For example, mindfully eating your breakfast might result in you eating less at lunch or dinner.
How can mindful eating help?
Scientists think that mindful eating can combat this tendency to distractedly overeat, as it really forces you to pay attention to the food you're eating, how much you're eating and how quickly you're eating.
Mindful eating can be a powerful tool, first helping you gain control over your eating habits, and potentially expanding into other areas of your life. A few health benefits of mindful eating include:
- Recognizing real hunger and fullness cues
- Weight loss
- Reduce emotional eating
- Reduce "external eating," or eating in response to environmental stimuli
How to start eating mindfully
The premise of mindful eating is pretty simple: Just pay attention to your food. As simple as that is, mindful eating is surprisingly difficult. You'll have to resist the lure of the quick feel-good hits your screens offer -- here are a few tips to get started.
- Put your phone away and out of sight during meal times.
- Eat in a room where there isn't a TV or a computer.
- Count how many times you chew a bite of food. This'll help you focus on the act of eating.
- Slow down. Fully chew your food, and wait a few seconds before taking the next bite.
- Enlist a friend to help out. Eat together, using only your conversation as entertainment.
At the end of the day, people do what makes them feel good. And if watching old episodes of The Office while you eat dinner makes you feel good, go for it! Just make it a point to assess how you feel mentally and physically before, during and after meals. Food journaling can help immensely with this.
And if you aren't sure whether your current mealtime routine is affecting your health, at least try mindful eating to see how it feels. As the saying goes, you never know until you know.