We’ve all done it, some more than others. We sit down to eat a meal but instead of focusing on our food, we turn our attention to our smartphone or tune into our TV. It’s called zombie eating and it's more common than it should be.
A poll commissioned by a snack company found that 88 percent of people are “zombie eaters” who stare at some type of screen while chowing down. The favorite distraction is television, with 91 percent of respondents admitting to the guilty pleasure. In fact, getting sucked into the latest show is so pervasive that half of the respondents said TV-watching-while-eating was a regular habit, one so absorbing that 83 percent of the people said their food had even gone cold. And 86 percent have been so preoccupied they’ve forgotten to eat altogether.
The poll of 2,000 American adults, conducted by OnePoll, also found that our small screen-addiction had very specific traits: half of us were reading or sending emails, 48 percent were on social media, 37 percent were watching YouTube videos and 36 percent were toggling around work-related activities.
"It’s not surprising, not at all,” says Jason Stevenson, a registered dietitian nutritionist, and director of Nutrition Systems at the University of Miami Health System. “I’m actually finishing my lunch and drinking my coffee while working.”
Distracted eating — the term Stevenson uses — is not new, but the nutritionist speculates that it’s probably gotten worse. Screens have now been around for decades, and our lives, as well as expectations of how and where we work, have changed in response.
“Nowadays everyone is living at a fast pace,” he says. “We’re trying to do more in the same time.”
At work, we answer email at our desk while wolfing down a sandwich. At home, we gravitate to what feels comfortable – TV – particularly if we’re eating alone. What’s more, old habits die hard. Stevenson points out that he, like many others, noshed while watching TV as a child — popcorn and chips on weekdays, ice cream on weekends.
“I suspect you revert to the same behaviors years later,” he adds. “It’s comforting.”
But it’s probably heightened now because there are so many screens and channels to soothe us. As a result, our screen addiction has already changed our behavior. Case in point: OnePoll found that 79 percent confess to eating on the couch, 64 percent while standing at the kitchen counter, 61 percent in bed, and 48% while sitting on the floor. Actually the typical person ate only three meals a week at the dining table.
At work it’s not much better. One in five said they eat in front of their computers.
This proves worrisome. “Is it triggering us to eat differently?” Stevenson asks. “Your mind may be so focused on the tasks that you may not be eating healthy or eating too much or not at all.”
Past research has shown that scarfing down food in front of a screen tends to encourage you to eat more — and not healthy foods, either. One recent study in the journal Physiology and Behavior found that people on their phones ate 15 percent more calories and chose more fatty foods. Another by British researchers found that distracted dining also led to a consumption increase of 25 percent more calories while eating later on.
To encourage a change of these harmful behaviors, Stevenson suggests:
- Address your screen habits. “You might want to say dinner is from 6 to 7 p.m. and during that hour there’s no electronic use at all.”
- Plan, plan, plan — your meals. It’ll be easier to stick to the program. Also, fill in the gaps between meals. When you’re starving, you’re likely to eat more and choose less wisely.
- Focus on your shopping list. Make one for your planned meals and stick to buying only those items you’ll need. You can’t eat junk food if you don’t stock it in the pantry. “The idea is to reduce temptation.”
- Look at the social environment that encourages you to do mindless eating. Are you eating too much of the wrong foods while watching football? While sitting at your desk? Sometimes we don’t even know that we’re eating.
- Be mindful. Be aware of what you’re eating and take your time. Eating slowly helps you eat less. Studies show that people who are fast eaters gain more weight over time.
- Recruit friends and family members to join you in mindful eating.
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