Between grab-and-go granola bars and drive-through dinners, eating on the run has become a common—and often mindless—habit. But even if you’re trying to nosh on healthy options, eating in-transit might be sabotaging your diet, according to new research.
The study, which was conducted by the University of Surrey, showed that eating while walking prompts us to consume more food later in the day, which could eventually lead to weight gain and obesity. The results were published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
Sixty females (both dieters and non-dieters) participated in the study. The participants ate a cereal bar while doing one of three activities: watching a short clip of “Friends,” walking around in a corridor, or talking with a fellow participant.
After the experiment, the participants filled out a follow-up questionnaire and took part in a taste test. They were offered four bowls of snacks—chocolate, carrot sticks, grapes, and chips—and after they left the room, the researchers measured how much had been consumed.
In both the television-watching and socializing groups, participants who identified as dieters consumed fewer calories and less mass than the non-dieting participants. But in the group that had walked while eating the cereal bar, the dieting participants munched on more snacks at the taste test—five times more chocolate, to be exact—than their non-dieting counterparts.
So what is it about eating on-the-go that makes people overindulge?
“[It] may be because walking is a powerful form of distraction which disrupts our ability to process the impact eating has on our hunger,” lead author Professor Jane Ogden said in a statement. "Or it may be because walking, even just around a corridor, can be regarded as a form of exercise which justifies overeating later on as a form of reward."
Although eating while walking triggered more over-consumption than eating while participating in the other activities, any form of distraction—including eating at our desks—can be detrimental for weight loss, Ogden said.
“When we don't fully concentrate on our meals and the process of taking in food, we fall into a trap of mindless eating where we don't track or recognize the food that has just been consumed," she said.
Another study, which was recently published in Public Health Nutrition and examined the eating habits of college students, showed that eating on the run, using media while eating, and dining on campus resulted in poor dietary patterns. Students who made their meals at home and regularly ate breakfast and dinner consumed less fast food and sugary drinks, and ate more fruits and veggies.
The authors concluded that the way we structure mealtimes, as well as the context in which we consume our food, influences our food choices. So next time you're about to grab your sandwich and run—pause. It will pay off in the long run to sit down and savor it (bonus points if you don't turn on the TV).