August 26, 2015

How often have you heard women talking, usually with pride, about how well women can multi-task? These discussions usually have disparaging and witty comments about how men just can’t do it, but is multi-tasking in everything really desirable?

We all lead busy lives, with many demands on our time and energy. A recent study looked at a group of 60 females given a muesli bar to eat in three different circumstances: watching TV, walking, or chatting with a friend. They were then asked to complete a questionnaire and then a taste test of different snacks: chocolate, carrot sticks, grapes, and potato chips.

While the three different eating situations produced no differences in participants’ desire to eat, those in the walking group ate five times more chocolate than the other two groups. It appears from the study that eating while walking makes people eat more.

Why would this be the case? The exercise did not make participants any hungrier, so there are other factors at play. Perhaps it’s the psychological effect of thinking that exercise will counter the calories in the chocolate. Perhaps the chocolate was chosen as a reward for doing the exercise. Perhaps the distraction of doing something physical made participants less aware of what they had eaten while walking.

Whatever the reason, this study can act as a caution to those trying to lose weight.

Sitting down to focus on what you eat, even if you’re chatting with a friend or watching TV, appears to be better for eating discipline, and therefore long-term weight loss, than eating while walking. It’s almost counter-intuitive if you believe that calories-in calories-out is the most important thing for weight loss.

How often do most people eat while walking? Obviously you don’t pull on your runners and clip the dog onto their lead and eat breakfast while you walk. Or do you? More likely, though, is to take a piece of fruit and eat it on the way to check the letter box. Or maybe grab a handful of nuts to eat while walking to school pick-up. How often have you seen people – especially women – scoffing down a take-away coffee while walking from the carpark to the office?

There are many factors to consider when weight loss is a priority, and it has long been known that distraction can lead to mindless eating. Distraction may not matter if you’re eating a pre-set serve of your food, but if there are then other eating opportunities immediately following the walk, the distraction may be sabotaging your efforts.

So while multi-tasking might make you feel like superwoman, perhaps it’s worth making a small change and just single-tasking when it comes to eating.

Distraction, restrained eating and disinhibition: An experimental study of food intake and the impact of ‘eating on the go’. Ogden et al, J Health Psychol August 20, 2015 1359105315595119