Our desks, cars, couches and even our beds are just a few of the settings for meals stuffed into an already overstuffed schedule. But abandoning the dining-room table for these locales may be an unwise diet choice, as not all eating sites are created equal. Many of the ways we eat can often lead to weight gain and digestion difficulties. Here are seven of the worst ways to chow down:
In the Kitchen: While the kitchen is a great place to store food, it is a horrible place to eat. Standing in front of the fridge or over the stove, eating while preparing or selecting food can add many unintended and unnoticed calories to your meal. Even standing over a garbage can may lead to nibbling. "When the typical mom is cleaning off the table and starts thinking 'it's such a shame to throw out these chicken nuggets,' they sometimes start snacking," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, American Dietetic Association spokesperson.
At Work: From the free donuts at a morning meeting to the postwork happy hours, a day at work can be a high-cal activity. The free-food calories add up quickly—a Krispy Kreme donut in the morning runs 200 calories; a few handfuls of peanuts can cost you 117 calories, which would take you about 13 minutes of jogging to burn off. Office eating can often be increased by your proximity to the freebies—a 2006 study: at Cornell University found that those who sit closer to an office candy dish tend to both eat more candy and underestimate their consumption.
In a Rush: Eating in a hurry may help you make that next meeting, but it can come with a number of negative effects. When researchers at the University of Rhode Island instructed their study participants to eat a large plate of pasta quickly, they consumed 646 calories in nine minutes. Those who were told to eat slowly consumed 579 calories in 29 minutes—67 calories less even while eating for 20 additional minutes. Eating hastily has also long been associated with indigestion and heartburn.
In the Dark: A 2002 study by University of California, Irvine, researchers found that those with a tendency to binge eat were more likely to do so in a dimly lit environment. The lower light level, the researchers suggested, may cause us to feel less inhibited in our eating. And that may mean that we're a bit more likely to slip downstairs and sneak a piece of cake in the middle of the night, but not in the brightness of the day.
Chewing too Little: A number of studies have shown that the benefits of chewing food sufficiently are twofold: it helps the food digest smoothly, helps prevent gas, bloating and heartburn. Slower, more mindful eating also increases enjoyment of the food's flavors. "When you eat and swallow big chunks in a hurry, it's much harder for the food to break down," says Taub-Dix. When food is chewed sufficiently, it increases the surface area that gets exposed to saliva's digestive enzymes. How much is enough chewing? Keep chomping until the food is nearly liquefied—or about 25 times, depending on what you're eating. Other than a few seconds, what have you got to lose?
In a Restaurant: Along with shrinking your wallet, eating out may expand your waistline. A large body of researchhas found associations between eating out frequently and high levels of obesity, body fat and higher body- mass index. University of Memphis found that women who eat out between six and 13 times per week eat an average of 290 extra calories each day, as well as higher sodium and fat intake. Save yourself the extra calories—and a few dollars—by eating in.
In front of a Screen: Whether it's a television or computer, sedentary snacking while surfing the Web or watching TV can mean a lot of mindless snacking. Researchers at several major institutions have found television watching to be a risk factor for obesity, especially in children and adolescents. Snacking while watching is a double threat: it both leads to mindless snacking and takes up time that could be spent participating in calorie-burning activities.
The way to keep your eating in check, says Taub-Dix, is to ditch the distractions. "Whether you're eating in front of the TV, on the phone, while reading, at your desk, it all has the same net result," she says. "You are focusing on another activity and missing out on the taste and texture of the food." The best solution is the simplest: a sit-down meal at your dining-room table.