A Good Meal: The Science of Savoring

There’s nothing I like more than sharing a good meal with friends and family. I like everything about it—the shopping for fresh ingredients, the chopping and cooking, and most of all, the mindful savoring and good conversation at the table.

If I have time.

Which I don’t many days, and I confess that on those days, dinner is often as not a salad or sandwich on my lap, as I watch NCIS reruns. I know this is a bad habit, but it’s just easier not to fuss.

A lot of people are opting out of traditional meals in this way. Indeed, one study says that more than half of Americans’ meals are now eaten in a room with the TV on. This trend has been taking place for some time, and what’s more, we are also eating a lot more fast food than ever before, which means much more salt and sugar than we really should be eating.

Some new research now suggests that these two trends may be interconnected. That is, it may be that combining eating with mental work—even something as mindless as watching reruns—diminishes the taste of food. With our attention focused elsewhere, the mind becomes less sensitive to tastes like saltiness and sweetness, and the flattening of the taste experience causes us to eat more in order to be satiated.

That’s the theory in any case, which two psychological scientists set out to explore in the laboratory. Reine van der Wal of Radboud University Nijmegen and Lotte Van Dillen of Leiden University wanted to see if what and how we eat is affected by our limited cognitive resources. In other words, does mental activity compete for attention with the sensory experience of eating, and shape our diet in the process?

To study this, they ran some simple experiments, all fairly similar. Volunteers tasted various concentrations of sourness or sweetness or saltiness in beverages and food while doing more or less demanding mental tasks. They rated what they ate on these particular tastes. The scientists anticipated that volunteers who were engaged in a difficult task would rate the tastes as less intense—and that they would eat more as a result.

And that’s just what they found, and describe in an article to appear in the journal Psychological Science.  Whether the taste was sour or sweet or salty, the more preoccupied the volunteers were, the less intense their tasting experience was. As a result, they consumed more—or, in one experiment, concocted a sweeter version of lemonade to satisfy their sweet tooth. In short, taxing the mind led to more, and less healthy, eating.

We all have very limited self-regulation capacity, and impulsiveness often leads to overeating. These results suggest that limited attention may be an important cause of this overeating. TV may be the worst distraction, but it’s not the only one. Driving a car, listening to the radio—even reading a good book while having lunch at the deli—they are all forms of multitasking, which impairs our ability to taste the food we are eating.

And before traditionalists start claiming the moral high ground, it’s worth noting that the “family meal” is often combined with arguments or family business or homework, all of which compete for the mind’s limited attention. Turning off the TV may be a good start, but only a start toward truly mindful mealtimes. When it comes to cognitive resources, family matters can be as depleting as NCIS reruns.

Wray Herbert’s blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post and elsewhere.

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