We're all guilty of skipping sit-down meals in favor of grabbing some grub on the go, but according to a new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, noshing on the run could be costing you your healthy habits and leaving you with the woes of weight gain—yikes!
The study examined dieters and non-dieters who ate under three different conditions: while watching a short TV clip, while taking a walk, or while chatting with a friend. We all know that mindless eating can totally destroy a diet, so you're probably skeptical of that TV group. But researchers at the University of Surrey in the U.K. actually found that dieters who ate while walking around or moving were more likely to overdo it during that meal, even more so than people who ate during other forms of distraction we typically associate with mindless eating, like watching TV. These on-the-go eaters were more likely to overeat later in the day as well. (Had a heavy weekend? We've got Your Post-Pig-Out Plan.)
"Hunger and fullness are far more than just biological processes, and not only relate to the calories consumed, but also to whether a person is aware of what they are eating," says lead author Jane Ogden, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Surrey. "When we eat mindlessly and are distracted from the food we are eating, our body doesn't get to code the food as having been eaten."
So why does one type of distraction sabotage our eating habits more than another? "I think eating on the go may cause more overeating than watching TV not only because it is a powerful form of distraction but it's also a form of exercise," says Ogden. "People may then overcompensate for this exercise and feel that they are legitimately allowed to eat more."
With busy lives and overwhelming schedules, though, sitting down for an hour-long meal three times a day is a little out of the question. But according to Ogden, who is also the author of The Good Parenting Food Guide, establishing healthy habits is easier than we think. For starters, choosing pre-portioned foods (like these 31 Grab-and-Go Meals Under 400 Calories) can hep you avoid overeating. Plus, it's more about training your brain to recognize that it's having a meal and that there's something to focus on other than just putting one foot in front of the other.
"This doesn't need to take much time," says Ogden, who suggests that even a few moments of sitting down can help to code your food intake as a real meal. "Stopping what you are doing and practicing the conscious process of thinking 'now I am having something to eat' should be enough." So take a break and savor that breakfast bagel—you've probably earned it!