In today’s modern world, where everybody is addicted to instant gratification, mindless eating is incredibly common.
Mindless eating is defined as eating food without paying adequate attention to what and how much food is being eaten. This is linked closely to eating out of boredom, or eating just to fill time – often times these two ideas are talked about as one and the same.
The role of visual cues
The underlying commonality here is that we aren’t always conscious of how much we’re eating. For example, consider this study on bottomless bowls done by Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think”. In this study, 54 participants were given 18 ounce bowls of soup, but half of the bowls were designed to partially refill so that the amount of soup in the bowl decreased at a slower rate.
On average, the people with the normal bowls ate 8.5 ounces of soup, while the participants with the sneaky refill bowls ate 14.7 ounces of soup. That’s a whopping 73% more soup eaten by those with the refillable bowls. Wansink and his research group found that the group with the refillable bowls didn’t notice that they ate more soup, nor did they feel more satiated than those who only ate 8.5 ounces.
Wansink concluded that “people use their eyes to count calories and not their stomachs. The importance of having salient, accurate visual cues can play an important role in the prevention of unintentional overeating.”
Why do we do this?
When food is available, we naturally eat, in case of a famine in the future.
At the most basic primitive level, our brains are hardwired to do one thing – survive. Even if we don’t immediately need the energy, when food is available we eat anyways and store the energy for later as body fat. That’s why having some body fat is healthy, and actually necessary for survival. That’s what makes it so hard to get to low body fat levels – your body doesn’t want you to starve.
Aside from the survival aspect of mindless eating, there’s a psychological mechanism at play here as well. As I mentioned earlier, we’re addicted to instant gratification and stimulation – and that’s what eating provides: stimulation. Whether it be visual stimulation from the television, the high you get from drugs, or the satisfying taste of food, these are all types of stimulation, that appeal to our senses and hormones.
All of these things appeal to our senses and trigger hormones in our body such as dopamine and serotonin that give us feelings of enjoyment and makes our brain say “give me more!” That’s why it’s so easy to end up binge watching netflix, become addicted to drugs, or continue to put your hand back into that bag of potato chips.
Obviously there are different levels of addiction, but they are all based on the same principle of stimulation and subsequent hormonal response.
How to overcome mindless eating habits
We need to focus on eating mindfully, to prevent the habit of mindless eating. When we eat while we’re distracted, we end up in the mindless eating trap – I’m sure most everyone can relate to this.
When you’re watching TV and snacking on pretzels for example, you might get really caught up in the TV show and just keep eating the pretzels right out of the bag without thinking about it. Another classic example is the giant bag of popcorn at the movies that you end up eating more of than you realized.
Fortunately, there are a few ways we can help combat this common problem of mindless eating.
1. Focus on the feel of the food
Avoid eating in front of the TV and instead focus on being in the moment and being conscious of exactly what you’re eating.
Chew your food slowly. Focus on the taste and the texture of the food you’re eating and how it makes you feel. You’ll find that this will help you eat slower, which will make you more aware of your feeling of fullness and your ability to put down the fork and say “okay that’s enough.”
2. Avoid trigger foods
One thing you can do to minimize mindless eating is to keep snack foods tucked away, instead of in plain sight. Or better yet, just don’t buy snack foods – they won’t be around at all! Trigger foods like chips or biscuits are often the subject of mindless eating.
Think about it. The more readily available something is to us, the more likely we are to eat it. If that guilty pleasure snack food is sitting on the counter-top staring at you in the face, you’ll be more likely to eat it, than if it’s still hidden in the back corner of your cupboard shelf or preferably left at the grocery store itself.
3. Visual cues for portion control
Another strategy to combat mindless eating is to monitor your portion control more carefully. Similar to the endless soup bowl principle above, controlling the perceived amount of food you eat can have a impact on satiety as well.
Try using a smaller plate – the same amount of food will look like more on a smaller plate than it would on a bigger plate. Subsequently, you’ll feel like you’ve eaten more food when you use the smaller plate and thus feel more full.
4. Listen To your body
Pause for a second to take a deep breath and focus on how you feel. Are you really still hungry? Focus on your body and how you feel. If you find that you really are still hungry, then by all means eat more! There’s nothing wrong with that.
But really take a minute to contemplate it. Being able to distinguish whether you’re really still hungry or you just want to stimulate your sense of taste more will help you stop the mindless eating.
Start implementing some of these strategies into your daily routine today, to combat the mindless eating phenomenon.
- Don’t leave the bowl of candy on the table or the packet of chips on the countertop – hide them away or don’t buy them at all.
- Use smaller plates, bowls, and portion sizes – trick your brain into thinking you ate more than you did.
- Eat slower and listen to your body – put your fork down between bites and make sure you’re eating because you’re hungry, not just because it tastes good.