Research Reveals That a Busy Mind Prevents Diet Cheating
You reach the end of the buffet line, having dutifully filled your plate with raw vegetables and lean meat. Totally unappetizing, but definitely faithful to your diet plan. But you are not out of the woods. In order to get back to your table, you have to pass the dessert bar.
Or, at least you choose to walk by, just to "see what they have," and as you do, you unfortunately spot your Achilles heel. The one item that could lead to your downfall: a delectable slice of chocolate cake. What do you do? Do you grab it, just to have "one bite" — or keep walking?
The answer actually depends on how hard you're thinking.
Distraction and Attention
If you reach this type of (appropriately analogized) fork in the road with little on your mind, perhaps during a leisurely Saturday brunch, you are in danger of blowing your diet.
Should you spot the chocolate cake while engaged in a fascinating conversation with the person behind you in the buffet line, however — you might not even notice it.
Lotte F. Van Dillen et al. in "Turning a Blind Eye to Temptation," from 2013, discovered that cognitive load can decrease the effect of temptation on both thinking and behavior.
When study participants were forced to engage in mental tasks increasing cognitive load, they paid less attention to attractive stimuli — both palatable food and attractive female faces.
Temptation and Attention
Van Dillen et al. additionally noted that dieters already face an uphill battle, and studies show they pay selective attention to attractive food. They acknowledge that drinkers and smokers face similar challenges of "processing bias" when faced with objects associated with their vice of choice. Yet according to research, the likelihood of giving in to temptation appears to correlate with the attention paid to attractive cues.
Van Dillen, et al. also note that performing a demanding task when exposed to tempting items may prevent cravings from forming in the first place. They also Van Dillen state that these findings suggest that temptation requires cognition, and engaging in mentally demanding tasks enhance self-regulation.
Cognitive load thus allows us to turn a "blind eye" to desirable items.
Regarding the implications of their findings, they note, "contrary to traditional views, performing a concurrent demanding task may actually diminish the captivating power of temptation and thus facilitate self-regulation."
Busy Schedules: Chaotic Eating
Busy people often do not have an opportunity to pay attention to food cues because they are simply not exposed to them. They do not have time to even take a lunch break. Fortunately, research does not necessarily correlate skipped meals or keeping unusual meal times to weight gain.
Annie R. Zimmerman et al., in 2018, studying what they term "chaotic eating," defined as eating meals or snacks at variable times during the day, found that such patterns are not linked to body mass index. They note that their results challenge guidelines on the importance of maintaining standard meal times, demonstrating that irregular meal times do not promote weight gain.
In another study, however, Kelly C. Allison and Namni Goel (2018) found that meal times can be a significant contributor to body weight regulation, and that eating at night can adversely impact weight and metabolism.
Combining research with practice, it's also true that arguably, the timing of meals may also impact portion control. You probably devote less time and attention to whatever snack you grab as you are dashing to work than you do to that pint of Ben and Jerry´s you enjoy, unhurried, at the end of the day.
Attention Drives Intention
Whether you stick to traditional mealtimes or not, when temptation strikes, attention drives intention. Everyone can relate to the experience of being totally engrossed in an interesting or enjoyable task, conversation, or project, where time seems to fly by.
Apparently, such conditions are also conducive to sticking to a diet plan.
So when evaluating the credibility of that thin friend or colleague who explains away her svelte frame by claiming that she just "forgets to eat," consider that in light of research indicating the consequences of distraction, perhaps that might be true.
A version of this article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 3,00 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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