While it may be a convenient way to fit lunch into a hectic work schedule, new research published in the Journal of Health Psychology suggests that eating while “on the go” could lead to weight gain and obesity in people who are dieting.

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Eating while walking around led to increased snack food intake among the participants of a subsequent taste test.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Surrey in the UK, found that eating while walking could make dieters overeat later on in the day, triggering more overeating than other forms of distraction such as watching TV or chatting with a friend.

“This may be because walking is a powerful form of distraction which disrupts our ability to process the impact eating has on our hunger,” suggests lead author Prof. Jane Ogden. “Or it may be because walking, even just around a corridor, can be regarded as a form of exercise which justifies overeating later on as a form of reward.”

Previous research has suggested that distraction can have a significant impact on food intake, with studies indicating that watching TV while eating can both increase food intake while watching and lead to inaccurate evaluation of actual food intake, increasing the risk of subsequent overeating.

Similar studies have also suggested that food environments and social interactions can provide forms of distraction that influence the amount of food eaten during a meal.

However, most of this research has focused on the impact of distraction on concurrent rather than future food intake, the study authors write. As a result, the authors opted to explore the impact on future food intake by using a fixed meal intake during a period of distraction for the study participants.

A total of 60 female students categorized as dieters or nondieters. The participants were each randomly assigned to eat a cereal bar under one of three different conditions. One group watched a 5-minute clip of a TV program while eating, another group had to walk along a corridor while eating and the final group ate while sat with a friend and having a conversation.

After eating the cereal bar, the participants completed a brief questionnaire about it before being asked to take part in an unsupervised taste test. Separate bowls of chocolate, carrot sticks, chips and grapes were presented to the participants, who were instructed to rate the foods according to how much they liked them and asked to “eat as much as you like.”

The researchers recorded how much of the food the participants had consumed after they had left the room.

Dieters who ate their cereal bar while walking around went on to eat more snacks during the taste test. In particular, the researchers found that they ate around five times more chocolate than other participants.

The researchers write that this finding supports the idea that higher levels of dietary restraint could make individuals more susceptible to the effects of distraction.

They acknowledge, however, that the taste test was very close in time to the distraction intervention. The researchers suggest that further research is needed to assess whether walking can trigger overeating in the longer term.

Prof. Ogden explains why distraction might affect food intake:

Fullness is not only the result of brain and chemical reactions, but a perception that is influenced by learning, emotion and distraction. If we eat ‘on the go’ or in front of a computer, we will feel less full as our attention is diverted away from the meal and we don’t learn the association between food and mealtimes.”

She says that although walking was found to have the most impact on food intake during the study, any form of distraction while eating can lead to weight gain. As a result, taking a proper lunch break away from desks makes workers feel fuller and less inclined to snack on unhealthy food later on.

The University of Surrey have also designed a short quiz to demonstrate how lunch hour habits can have a big impact on your health.

A recent study documented a possible solution for sedentary behavior caused by hectic work schedules. Medical News Today reported on the work of researchers from the University of Iowa who experimented with increasing physical activity among office employees by putting portable pedaling devices under their desks.