Distracted eating could have negative impacts on students, families

By Lilly Mashayek

Blake Jones, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University, Barbara Fiese, professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University, and Jessica Jarick, graduate student in ACES at the University looked at how mealtimes with distracted parents could lead to a negative effect in their children’s eating patterns.

“For the longest time with mealtime studies, we’ve just looked at the amount of times per week that you eat together, but we really weren’t looking at what happens during the meal,” Jones said.

The researchers found that when a distracting element was present, more active and less positive communication occurred within the family. Jarick said that this positive communication includes time families spent talking with each other, such as about how their day went.

“If you look at the entire percentage of time that people spend during the meal when they are in the distracted situation, they spent more of their time up and away from the table,” Jones said. “And so it led to less time interacting together, so there’s less communication in general.”

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About 60 volunteer families with children ages five to twelve – ranging from single-parent households to a family with five children and two parents – each ate one meal at a house. Participants were placed inside a “research home,” equipped with cameras, where half of the families ate a family meal in a distracting environment – the sound of running a loud vacuum – while the other half ate their meals without a distraction.

“It’s basically designed to look like a family’s home,” Jones said. “We would have all the food there, ready to go and as soon as they [the families] were ready they would come in and eat.

The research home, known as the Beschloss Family Media Design Center, is located on Lincoln and Nevada in Urbana. A hallway leads from the home to an attached building to the control room full of audio-visual equipment that they used to monitor the families as they ate their meal.

The study also researched the effects that distracted and mindless eating could have in relation to possible health effects, such as obesity.

“For young children who are learning how to eat, they’re using their parents and the adults as the role model for how to eat, and for how to recognize when you’re full,” Jones said.

Jarick said that university students can also become distracted or mindless eaters that could have some negative health effects. For students, she said, it can sometimes be difficult to intentionally set aside time to eat without distraction.

“This isn’t a solely social phenomenon… even things like engaging in action while you’re eating, using your phone or your computer, not paying attention to what you’re eating or whether you’re full or not, could definitely apply to situations where it’s just an individual,” Jarick said. “And especially college students have a lot of those distractions.”

Whether eating while doing homework, on-the-go or in a loud and busy environment such as a dining hall, distracted eating could potentially contribute to weight gain in college, Jarick said.

“It’s probably harmful because a lot of the time, I’m guessing, when people are doing it they’re eating things that aren’t very healthy, like chips, and when you’re eating distractedly you tend to not understand how much you’re consuming at once,” said Sruthi Raman, junior in LAS.

Jarick said that the best way to avoid distracted eating is to consciously set aside a time dedicated to eating your meal.

“Even if I can only take ten minutes, I try to stop what I’m doing while I’m eating, if at all possible,” she said. “It can definitely be hard to take that time away, but it is really important.”

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