Lunch hour for many New Yorkers is frequently no such thing—more often, it’s the twenty minutes that can be spared to rush out and grab whatever might be thrown on a bun, in a wrap, or inside a to-go container and wolfed down at your desk. Depending on the quality of your corner deli and your proximity to a gourmet food truck or burrito shop, it might still be a perfectly good lunch, certainly. But it is not likely to be a memorable one.
And that’s where you run into trouble. It turns out that eating this way can lead to a kind of lunch amnesia, and from there to more unhealthy afternoon snacking. That’s the gist of a forthcoming study in the journal Appetite, which points toward a practical application of some newish, pretty cool science regarding food intake: research in which rats with lesions on their memory-controlling hippocampi gobble more than they otherwise would; or amnesiac patients, despite having just finished one meal, consume another and then another, heedless of their full bellies. The consensus emerging is that beyond the food itself, the memory of a meal—or, conversely, the absence of its memory—plays a big role in what you eat next.
The Appetite study was conducted at the University of Birmingham in England. Twenty-nine women were fed identical lunches: a ham sandwich, chips, and water, about 500 calories in total. Some of the students ate their lunch with only their random thoughts as company. Others ate while reading a newspaper story about changes in the size of chocolate bars and fizzy drinks in England. The rest ate while listening to a three-minute audio clip encouraging them to focus on the look, smell, flavors, and textures of their food. An hour later, the professors brought the students back and put before them plates of cookies, among them chocolate chip and chocolate fingers (apparently a British thing; we will trust that they are appealing). The students who focused on their lunch ate roughly 50 percent fewer chocolate-chip cookies and 60 percent fewer chocolate fingers than their newspaper-reading and mindless-eating counterparts. Or as the researchers put it: “Rated vividness of lunch memory was negatively correlated with snack intake.”
Jessica Donohoe is one of the study’s co-authors. She likes to call her approach “mindful eating,” which sounds vaguely like a cousin of the Slow Food movement promoted by foodies whose lifestyles afford time for marathon repasts. But fear not! Donohoe says that even the food-aware eaters in her study only took ten minutes to finish their lunches, the same time as the other two groups. “It is enough to just notice what you are experiencing,” she says. Of course, if you’ve opted to hit the sketchy kebab cart, all this noticing may itself prove problematic. But at least your street meat won’t be followed by an attack of the munchies.