Like to watch TV or play with your phone while you eat your dinner? Watch out - it could make you pile on the pounds. Not paying attention to our food makes us more prone to snacking later.
Over a series of experiments researchers found that those who were distracted by TV or a computer game while they ate their lunch snacked much more later on than those who had paid attention to their meal.
It's thought that our memory for recent eating plays an important role in appetite, so if we're distracted during a meal, we might not remember it as well - and therefore have a greater appetite for snacks later.
For the first experiment, 39 normal-weight young women were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: a high-distraction group, a low-distraction group, and a no-distraction group.
Each person was given the same 400-calorie lunch consisting of several food items presented in a fixed order, and instructed to eat all of the items.
In the high-distraction group, the women were told to play a computer game while eating, and that they would win money if they did well.
In the low-distraction group they were just told to play the game while eating; and in the third group they were just told to eat their lunch.
Later in the afternoon, each participant had access to a variety of biscuits on a plate, and the amount each person ate was assessed by weighing the plate before and afterwards.
There was a significant difference between the groups, the University of Birmingham researchers found.
Those in the high-distraction condition ate 69 per cent more snacks than the no-distraction group, and those in the low-distraction group eating 28 per cent more (than those in the no-distraction group).
A second experiment, involving a further 63 people, was similar, but involved watching TV (in the distraction condition) and eating soup and bread.
This found that those who watched TV while eating their lunch ate 19 per cent more biscuits later on than those who had eaten their meal without any distractions.
'Despite differences in the type of lunch eaten - for example, buffet versus soup - and the type of attention manipulation - for example, computer game-playing versus TV watching, a clear pattern of results was observed,' the researchers wrote in the journal Appetite.
'Distraction during eating increased later snack intake, while focusing on food decreased later snack intake.'
A third experiment was also carried out, in which 45 normal-weight people were allocated to three groups.
The first listened to an audio clip instructing them to imagine they were watching themselves eat - making them extremely focused on their own food intake.
The second listened to a clip instructing them to imagine they were watching a celebrity - specifically David Beckham - eat (making them still focused on the food, but to a lesser degree); the third, which was the control group, just ate their lunch in silence.
When all participants were given access to biscuits later, those in the self-imagining group - i.e. those who had really paid attention to what they were eating - ate far fewer than the other groups.
'The results suggest that attentive eating may be a useful target in interventions to help with appetite control,' the researchers concluded.