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Munching, grazing - why do we stuff our faces while watching telly?

Fri, 3 February, 2017

Why do we munch? Why do we eat on the train, in the cinema, while watching telly? It’ must be a sociological phenomenon completely confined to the first world. A first world problem. Or is it a problem?

We eat on the train - or just drink in the morning, thank God for that. I don’t think I could bear the company of a burger and fries in my carriage first thing. Everyone’s clutching paper cups with plastic teats to drink through, increasingly craft coffee shops rather than Starbucks. An odd granola bar or a croissant may be forgiven, smell-wise. On the way home in the evening though it’s full works: a representation of every high street/station food outlet makes an appearance. The smells, the smells!

We eat in the cinema - and though I’m not usually guilty of train-munching, I’m there with the rest at cinema fodder. Why, it’s the only time I get to eat popcorn - sweet of course, you can stuff your healthy savoury variation. It’s always over salted anyway. I’ll confess I even drink at the cinema, being privileged to frequent an incredibly swish establishment with a bar (before everyone pictures brown paper bags with cans of lager).

And the telly - I get munchies like an old stoner, completely capable of going through a bagful of almonds, handfuls of raisins and dried mango to a single episode of The Man in the High Castle. You don’t want to know what happens at a box set binge session… To be fair, at least I try to be reasonably healthy - dried fruit, nuts, pomegranates which I eat almost seed by seed (they’re called arils, I’ve found recently) - and that's much better than bags of crisps, but still hellishly calorific.

In the street - but that’s perhaps excusable as some of the world street foods are better than what you’ll get in a restaurant? And surely ice cream in summer tastes the best when en promenade? Anyway the street phenomenon is (luckily or worryingly?) becoming obsolete - no way can we handle food AND the mobile phone. It really makes you wonder what’s better.

All this has been brought about by quite radical food commandments that I read about: don’t eat unless sitting down, don’t eat looking at a screen of any description, don’t eat anything that contains things you can’t visualise, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t eat. Makes a lot of sense at a glance, but then - blimey, half the western population would starve to death. And to nit-pick: train ticks the ‘sitting’ box and the visualisation excludes being adventurous in exotic cuisines.

Is it bad then, the munching habit? It’s certainly adding to the obesity epidemic and the types of food people tend to munch are not the healthiest. Why do we do it? Sadly, the most probable explanation is: because we can.

It’s the blessing and the curse of the first world, the abundance of readily available food. As many dieticians point out, humans did not evolve with food aplenty but with the need to hunt and gather in order to eat. Our bodies are in fact designed to go through long periods of fast or little nourishment followed by an occasional feast on a mammoth or a bison. Mind you - the feast would always be meat, not a mountain of cream éclairs - so how deeply do we defy nature stuffing ourselves full of Maltesers?

Another reason - we need constant distraction with our short attention span. We can’t properly focus on one activity any more: we watch Strictly while we tweet, Instagram our new boots, WhatsApp a mate and pop Cheetos into our mouths at the rate of knots.

Bad - that is seriously bad when you think about it. How many of us are guilty of grazing mindlessly when we are not only not hungry but only just finished a main meal? And occupied with an activity that should have nothing to do with eating?

I’m going to try and do without it while - that’s my nastiest habit - watching telly. I’ll get a glass of water. I’ll put something subtitled on. I’ll just quit munching - and tell you all about it soon.


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