01/31/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Cell Phones at Meals: Might They Help Us Eat Less?

Back in the old days when everybody seemed to smoke, lighting up a cigarette at the table meant the meal was finished. Of course, there were those who alternated eating and smoking throughout the meal, but most people did the two behaviors consecutively. First you ate, pushed your plate away upon completion, then took out a cigarette, and smoked.

As a non-smoker (like a famous president, I never learned to inhale), I watched these smokers with envy. Not for them was an internal debate over having dessert. The cigarette was their dessert, and seemingly took away the urge to continue to eat. Moreover, it was something to do with their hands and mouth if others were still eating, because etiquette dictates staying at the table until everyone has finished. We, the non-smokers, would have to sit on our hands to prevent ourselves from nibbling, or often asked for seconds to have something to do until the slowest eater among us finally finished.

The rapid rise in obesity may be due, in part, to the decline in smoking. Nicotine does dampen appetite and, by taking away the temptation to eat seconds and/or dessert, could decrease calorie consumption. But perhaps something has come along to replace the cigarette as a signal to stop eating. It is called the cell phone.

The cell phone is the new cigarette. It is taken out and looked at as soon as the fork has been put down. Anyone who has eaten in a restaurant has probably seen tables full of diners all using their cell phones, oblivious to the presence of others at the table and also oblivious to the food on the plate. If messages on the phone require responses, both hands are on the phone, texting or emailing away. This means that neither hand is holding food or bringing the food into the mouth.

The end-of-the-meal cell phone scrutiny not only stops eating of the main course, it may also decrease eating dessert. After all, to consume another course means paying attention to what is being offered, and then having to put the phone away in order to eat the cake, pie or soufflé. And presumably, the calorie-conscious diner could use the phone to calculate how many calories were already consumed to see whether eating dessert was calorically justified.

Playing with the cell phone also solves other dining problems, like what to you do when you have finished your meal and others are still eating -- or how do you prevent yourself from eating dessert when others are doing so? How do you keep your fingers and fork from putting food in your mouth when people are sitting around a table just talking, or you are listening to a boring after-dinner speaker?

"I hate dinner parties where we all sit around the table for an hour or more after the meal," a weight-loss client told me. " Invariably, the host [hostess] will bring out nuts, candy, small cookies or fruit in case we should, by some miracle, still be hungry. No one is, of course, but it is really hard to not to nibble while talking, especially if you are bored or can't get a word in edgewise." She went on to tell me that this has all changed with the cell phone. No one apparently simply sits at the table to talk; they look at their phones and often leave the table to make a phone call.

We probably have not begun to expand the use of cell phones as a way of halting eating. Maybe sometime in the near future, a camera will take pictures of us stuffing potato chips or cookies in our mouths, or a picture of what is on our plate. This will be instantly transmitted and turned into calories and fat grams, and a message or perhaps mild electric shock will stop us from eating any more. Perhaps the phone will ring and some disembodied voice will tell us to get up, clean up the kitchen and get rid of the leftovers. Or we will be told that the cheesecake we are considering ordering for dessert will demand four hours in the gym the next day.

But on a basic level, the simple act of not eating for 15 or 20 minutes because we are engrossed in our cell phone communications will be sufficient to control portion size. We have all experienced the feeling of fullness if the meal is interrupted by a phone call, and we then return to our not-yet-empty plates 15 minutes later. Enough food has been digested to take away our hunger, and we don't feel the need to resume our meal. A cell phone as a meal terminator is not something an etiquette expert might allow, but on the other hand, unlike cigarettes, the only side effect is a run-down battery.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

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