Bad Distraction vs. Good Distraction

This series is about helping kids find things to do with their hands (and in some cases, their mouths) that will minimize the availability of those body parts to partake in snacking. It is also about encouraging parents to create a mini-culture at home, where hopefully there is at least one meal per day with everyone present, and they confine their attention to the food and the other people. (Translation: no phones or other gadgets.) Eating time is for eating, and other time is for doing things other than consuming food.

There is plenty of authority for this attitude. Distracted eating is, as a nutritionist and registered dietitian Cynthia Sass has said, “a major setup for overeating”:

When you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to become disconnected from how much you’re eating, or how full you feel. And when you’re out of touch with the eating experience — not noticing the aromas, flavors, and textures because you’re multitasking — you’re more likely to feel unsatisfied, which can lead to post-meal snacking.

Nutrition writer Jessica Migala reminded readers that “a review of studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating when distracted prompted people to consume more calories in the moment — as well as hours later.”

When author Carolyn Williams advises adult readers to avoid boredom and “keep your mind and hands busy,” imagine how much more that is true for young people. Helping them figure out how to accomplish that is a very easy, helpful thing that parents can do. She writes,

The problem is that if you’re busy or distracted you may interpret your body’s dehydration signals as hunger instead, causing you to reach for food instead of what your body truly needs: water. One of the easiest ways to stay hydrated is to carry a water bottle with you…

Message #1 is, do not normalize constant eating, sometimes euphemistically known as grazing. Message #2 is, keep those hands busy with activities more compelling than food. Message #3 is, for extra satisfaction, find activities that don’t need much equipment, and can be done with recycled or cheap materials.

Get ready to make things cheap

One of the keys to success in this field is having efficiently organized storage space for items that can be reused. If someone asks, “Why are you keeping old cardboard cylinders that used to hold toilet paper?” just show them some incredibly brilliant piece of sculpture that your child made from exactly such materials.

Even if new toys and fancy art supplies are affordable, thinking of how to use stuff that would have gone to the landfill is a creative challenge in itself. And the cheaper the ingredients, the more ideas can be tried without feeling pressure to justify the expense. When your medium is, for instance, egg cartons, how wrong can an experiment go?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “5 Things That Make You Overeat,” 08/30/14
Source: “10 Types of Hunger and How to Control Them,”, 08/26/14
Source: “9 Behaviors That Make You Eat More,”, 06/23/15
Image by Doug Tammany/CC BY-SA 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources