Last week I suggested a few simple rules to follow if you want to change your eating habits for good. Key to these rules was the idea of paying attention to what you’re eating. We humans are actually pretty awful at paying attention to what we’re paying attention to. That is, we think we’re paying reasonable attention whilst actually we’re not.
You might have seen a video of one of the classic experiments demonstrating how rubbish we humans are at paying attention. Try watching the video below, for instance…
In videos like this, people generally only notice the gorilla walking casually across the scene about half the time.
We really are rubbish at understanding the limits of our own attention. This applies in more mundane settings too. We tend to think we’re good at multi-tasking. We mostly believe that answering the odd text message whilst reading something won’t affect our engagement with the task too much, but it’s not true. Engaging with some other task or source of information affects how well you pay attention to the first task, even if the second task is simple.
When it comes to eating, the argument is even more compelling. After all, “how well you pay attention to the first task” makes it sound like I’m suggesting you’ll get sauce all down your front because someone texts you when you’re having lunch. No, that’s not it. (Well, that too, perhaps.)
In a series of beautiful experiments published in 2013, Reine van der Wal and Lotte van Dillen had people taste standardised foodstuffs in a food lab, such as lemon juice mixed with more or less water, and sugary drinks made either slightly or very sweet. They also had people do simple tasks like memorising numbers or letters. Some of the tasks required a bit of attention (e.g. memorising a sequence of seven letters) whilst some were easy (e.g. memorising a single letter). When participants were given the more complicated mental tasks to do at the same time as tasking sweet, sour, or salty foodstuffs, they rated the experience of these tastes as less intense.
Take a moment for that to sink in. Just thinking about a few numbers you want to remember for later makes salty crackers taste less salty, and sweet drinks taste less sweet. And these were not complicated thoughts the participants were having. These were not “oh my god I must memorise this TED talk” type thoughts. They were just memorising a few random digits.
I said last week that distraction whilst eating is a bad thing because it can mean you miss the subtle ‘full’ signal, and that’s true, but even more pressing is that it’s robbing you of the full enjoyment of your food!
Turn off the TV. Save that Vimeo clip for later. Fold down the corner of that page, and ignore the phone. Food is important.
“Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.”
— Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
James Boswell’s ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’