Nutrition

How use of digital devices may influence obesity risk

Recent evidence suggests that people who multitask by switching frequently between digital devices may be more at risk of developing unhealthful eating habits and obesity.

Media multitasking may impact obesity risk and eating habits.

The more gadgets that become available to us, the more we may feel tempted to explore these new technologies, but their constant claims on our attention could end up harming our health.

At home and in the workplace, various technologies compete for our attention: Computers, smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches all urge us to prioritize different tasks and rewards with their push notifications and the appeal of social media.

And even when we sit down at the dinner table with our partners or catch up over coffee with a friend, some of us may feel tempted to whip out our phones and check for new likes and messages on our various media accounts, switching from one app to the next.

According to a new study — from Rice University, in Houston, TX, Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH, and The Ohio State University, in Columbus — people who often switch between forms of digital media are more likely to be overweight or have obesity and to have poorer self-control.

“Increased exposure to phones, tablets, and other portable devices has been one of the most significant changes to our environments in the past few decades, and this occurred during a period in which obesity rates also climbed in many places,” says lead researcher Richard Lopez, Ph.D.

“So, we wanted to conduct this research to determine whether links exist between obesity and abuse of digital devices — as captured by people’s tendency to engage in media multitasking,” he explains.

The researchers report their findings in a study paper that appears in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.

Multitasking and the brain’s reaction to food

Lopez and the team conducted two related studies that assessed the link between media multitasking and obesity. In the first, the researchers worked with 132 participants aged between 18 and 23.

The participants answered questions from a specially designed questionnaire aimed at evaluating how much they multitasked and how easily they got distracted — for instance, whether they felt the urge to check messages on their phones while having in-person conversations.

At this stage, the team found that individuals who scored high on the media multitasking questionnaire had higher body mass indexes and more body fat than participants who had low scores.

In the second study, the researchers selected 72 participants from the previous study, who agreed to undergo functional MRI scans so that the team could record their brain activity as they looked at a series of images that included slides of unhealthful but appealing foods.

The scans revealed that, when shown pictures of unhealthful foods, people with high media multitasking scores showed increased activity in the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex, two brain regions implicated in the reward cycle, which plays a role in addiction and the formation of unhealthful habits.

Additional research also showed that these participants were more likely to spend more time around campus eateries.

So far, the findings suggest only a correlation between multitasking habits, levels of distractibility, and the risk of obesity.

However, Lopez and the team believe that the connection emphasizes an important concern, namely that how we relate to digital media could affect our brain processes, which, in turn, may impact our habits and our health.

Such links are important to establish, given rising obesity rates and the prevalence of multimedia use in much of the modern world.”

Richard Lopez, Ph.D.

The researchers also hope that future studies will shed further light on these matters and reveal more about how some forms of multitasking may affect our physical well-being.

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