A recent study from Rice University looked at the effects of "digital device overload" on waistlines, and the result was surprising.
The study looked specifically at media multitasking, which is defined as simultaneously switching between media inputs (like scrolling through Instagram while watching Netflix for example). And it found links between that behavior and the kind of lowered self-control around food that often results in weight gain.
"Increased exposure to phones, tablets and other portable devices has been one of the most significant changes to our environments in the past few decades, and this occurred during a period in which obesity rates also climbed in many places," said Richard Lopez, the study's lead author, in a press release. "So, we wanted to conduct this research to determine whether links exists between obesity and abuse of digital devices—as captured by people's tendency to engage in media multitasking."
The study was split up into two parts. The first study surveyed 132 college-aged participants—37 percent of which were overweight or obese—on their digital device behaviors and distractibility using a Media Multitasking-Revised (MMT-R) scale. This scale measures both proactive behaviors of media multitasking, such as texting another person while at lunch with a friend, and passive behaviors, like being distracted by the music in a coffee shop while trying to work on something. The researchers found associations between higher MMT-R scores and those participants with higher BMIs, suggesting a possible link between the two.
The second study brought back 72 of the participants from the first study to undergo an fMRI scan where researchers measured brain activity while participants viewed a series of images. Among these images were a variety of pictures of appealing, high-fat foods. Those who scored highest on the MMT-R scale in the first study saw increased brain activity in the part of the brain responsible for food temptation.
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While Lopez notes the study's findings are preliminary, he believes there is enough evidence to suggest links do exist between media multitasking, obesity risk, brain-based measures for self-control, and exposure to real-world food cues. The team hopes this study will create awareness on the issue and promote future work on the associations between obesity and media use.
While it's not clear whether the distractions cause overeating, other whether the two behaviors are linked in other ways, many health experts have recommended avoiding multitasking while eating (like using phones during dinner, eating in front of the TV, or otherwise engaging in behaviors that cause distraction). Distracted eating has been shown to inhibit weight loss efforts, since people are more likely to consume calories when they aren't paying attention.
Engaging in mindful eating—a practice where one is fully aware of their food intake and experience—can be an effective tool for weight loss and for building healthier eating habits in general. Thinking about the flavors and textures of what you're eating as well as the nourishment it provides can actually help you fill up faster.
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So, if you're trying to lose weight, consider turning off the TV and putting your phone away at meal times. It could have a major impact on your weight—and overall health—in the long run.