It’s not a surprise that your attention may waver when there’s a gooey chocolate chip cookie beckoning you from the corner of your desk. But if you’re counting calories, just the idea of a sugary treat is enough to throw your work off track , suggests preliminary research from the University of California at San Diego.
Researchers tested both calorie-counters and oblivious eaters on measures of cognitive ability—like staying focused, solving problems, and thinking creatively—after placing either a full water jug or an empty box of donuts in the room. The results: Those who habitually tracked their calories fared much worse at the tasks when the empty bakery box was around.
“Calorie counting is mentally taxing,” says lead researcher Aimee Chabot, Ph.D. Diligently keeping track of what you eat makes you hyper-aware of food, and when you see a reminder of a snack—like the box of donuts, or candy in the next cube over—it can trigger stressful thoughts about how to fit something sweet into your daily eating plan, she says.
That, unsurprisingly, makes it harder for your overloaded brain to keep up with what it should be doing.
Food cues are everywhere, so if you count your calories, it’s not really feasible to try to avoid those cues. Instead, if you find yourself easily distracted by snacks, you might want to swap out number crunching for a simpler method that takes up less mental energy, Chabot says.
For example, try using your hands as the perfect measuring tool so you aren’t over-indulging. Aim to get a handful-size portion of protein—about 20 to 30 grams—a handful-sized portion of grains, and 2 handfuls of vegetables at each meal, says nutritionist Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., owner of MohrResults.com.
“Your hands are always with you,” he says.
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