On Zombie Eating

Nom nom nom


When we’re distracted, we taste less and eat more. So says a new study by researchers Reine van der Wal and Lotte van Dillen. In their study, college students were asked to consume a series of drinks with varying acidities. But before tasting each, they had to memorize either a long string of digits (in the high distraction condition) or a single digit (in the low distraction condition). Then they knocked back their glasses, scribbled their digits, and rated the sourness of the liquids they’d consumed. In the low distraction condition, students deemed the very sour solutions sourer than in the high distraction condition.

The discovery was not an anomaly. Another experiment found comparable effects for salty substances. And in yet another experiment, in which participants were encouraged to make drinks using whatever ratio of grenadine syrup to water they desired, distracted students mixed themselves sweeter drinks—and drank more of those drinks—than their undistracted peers.

Now, it’s unclear to me whether the distracted students actually experienced the provisions as tasting less flavorful, or whether—thanks to those pesky digit strings—they simply didn’t remember the flavors as vividly immediately afterwards. No matter. The distracted students wanted more flavor.

The study is just the latest in a veritable onslaught of articles about the dangers of eating while, well, doing just about anything but eating. There is of course special scorn reserved for chowing down in front of the television. (With both Western diets and Western screen-viewing habits under scrutiny of late, we can hardly expect kind words to be said of their synthesis.) But it isn’t just television that distracts us. Just about anything can turn us into zombie eaters: reading the newspaper, listening to Pride and Prejudice, even socializing.

As distractions mount, so do the dangers. When our focus isn’t on our food, we may be slower to notice the physiological cues that tell us we’re full. And without tangible evidence of our binge—a pile of incriminating candy wrappers, say—we tend to lose track of how much we’ve eaten. This spurs us to eat more, for this meal and—hey, why not?—even for our next.

The antidote to zombie eating is mindful eating, where one focuses on eating—just eating—in a deliberate, even meditative, manner. Yesterday over lunch I gave mindful eating a whirl. To my mind the experience was not unlike silent hiking: my movements slowed, my senses piqued, the familiar became wonderfully strange.

And then I got bored. It turns out I like zombie eating. When presented with a sandwich, the only thing more exciting than that sandwich is the prospect of combining the sandwich with some mental stimulation: chatter about dates gone awry, a snappy piece of narrative nonfiction, or barring anything else, the back of the mayonnaise label. The sandwich may not taste as satisfying, I’ll grant you, but satisfaction is about more than taste. So for me and the other zombie eaters out there, researchers recommend taking smaller bites—a recent study suggests that small bites and sips prevent us from underestimating our own consumption, even when we’re distracted—or simply serving ourselves a fixed portion before settling down for a good, mindless feast.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up