Using your smartphone whilst eating may mean you eat more

Using your smartphone whilst eating may mean you eat more


Chris is struggling to believe the difference that putting his smartphone away during meals has had on his weight.

In September 2020 Chris, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, approached me after he’d read one of my blogs on behaviour change. We were six months in to the first lockdown and his weight had climbed half a stone in those six months.

He was feeling disheartened and a bit desperate – his weight was creeping upwards year by year and his doctor had advised him to lose weight to help reduce his blood pressure, which was a bit on the high side.

Chris wanted two things out of working with me. The first was to stop his weight increasing and to get it down from where it was at 171 pounds, down to 147 pounds (10 and a half stone). The second was to get rid of the stress he felt around food and eating.


Chris’s first step

Using the Unhelpful Eating Habits checklist Chris identified his lack of eating routine during his working day, as unhelpful. His breakfast and dinner happened at regular times, but in-between there was no consistency.

On a typical weekday he’d be busy working online from home, ignore the clock, and only realise it was time for lunch when he felt overly hungry and he would then eat more than intended. He often ate at his desk, consuming social media along with his food.

When 6pm came around, whether he was hungry or not, he’d sit down to a full meal with his family, an important time to enjoy eating together, swapping stories with his wife and four kids about their day. It felt that on days when lunch was late, he was not only overeating but felt sluggish and annoyed with himself. Evenings could then easily descend into unplanned, unsatisfying grazing and more self-criticism.

It made sense to Chris that his lunchtime eating was part of the problem.

He agreed to start focusing on eating his lunch at a regular time. As he ate breakfast at 10am and dinner at 6pm, he was happy with establishing 2pm as a regular lunch break so that it was mid-way between.

Creating an actual break for lunch

Chris was happy that within two months, his weight was actually down 5 pounds rather than continuing to increase. We talked about how this regular lunchtime was helping and we talked about perhaps making a bit more of an occasion of this mid-day meal.

Rather than scrolling whilst eating at his desk, Chris decided to see whether eating more mindfully might help him. This meant eating in the kitchen, not at his desk, and he made it a rule only ever to eat sitting at the kitchen table from now on.

We talked about his looking at his phone whilst eating and I told him about research that shows that when we’re distracted, we tend to eat more. Chris was intrigued to find out whether cutting down on the distractions might help his lunchtime eating.

He created a mini-ritual of getting up from his desk, putting his phone in the charger and walking to the kitchen where he set out his lunch with a knife and fork. Some days he ate with his wife, but if she was out he aimed to create the same sense of occasion. It felt odd to be eating without his phone, but he found he enjoyed the taste of the food more and it was easier to notice when he was getting full.

Enjoying his food more and noticing fullness meant that reducing the size of his lunch slightly was a natural and simple next step. He was getting as much pleasure from his smaller lunch with no phone as he had been from a larger amount consumed whilst scrolling.

Does it matter if you’re scrolling whilst eating?

Health scientists in Brazil* studied 26 men and 36 women eating in laboratory conditions, to compare how much they consumed with or without distractions.

Each of the participants had sessions on different days, where they came in to the lab and ate until they were satisfied. One day they ate with no distraction, on another they had to use their smartphone whilst they ate and on another they had to read printed articles on subjects that interested them.

The study found that compared with no distraction, using a smartphone or reading increased the calorie intake of what they ate by 15%. There was no difference between smartphone use and reading, so it’s not just distracting tech that has this effect.

Chris’s progress so far

Since he began leaving his smartphone on his desk, Chris has steadied his weight around about 155 pounds. That’s a loss of sixteen pounds (or 9% of his starting weight). He’s thinking about what small stepwise change to his eating habits he might make next, to move closer to his weight goal.

For now, he’s OK treading water as he still finds it hard to believe that he’s lost over a stone by making some simple but stick-able changes to how he was eating.

How might this help you?

If you eat with distractions (your phone or the newspaper for example), you might find that putting them to one side really pays off in terms of how much enjoyment you get from what you’re eating and your awareness of when you’ve had enough.

Like Chris, you may find it helps to make each meal time more of an occasion, to help you focus on the food. See if you can create a mini-ritual to help remember this new thing you’re doing – this will help it become a habit as you repeat the same action in the same situation time and again. The great thing about creating a habit is that less brain space is required to do something that has become habitual.

Once your attention is more fully absorbed in what you’re eating you may find you can reduce the amount and still get the same pleasure.

Want to learn more?

You can learn more about taking a stepwise to changing how you eat using Appetite Retraining from my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite”.

If your job involves helping people change how they eat, you can learn how to use the principles of Appetite Retraining to enhance the work you do with clients at my online Psychology of Weight Loss workshop.


*Goncalves, R et al (2019) Smartphone use while eating increases caloric ingestion. Physiology and Behaviour.


Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash


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