Why Mindless Eating Can Pack on Pounds
If food is the last thing on your mind when you eat, there could be a weight-gain surprise at the end of the year.
Life vs. Food continued...
Life, it seems, gets in the way of food.
"It's very common for people to be so preoccupied with life concerns
that they eat without paying much attention to their food," says
Instead of food, everything else is on their minds, from kids to
relationships to work.
"Many workers multitask by eating at their desks and continuing to do
computer work, answer emails, or do other tasks," says Spangle.
They're so focused on their work that the food in front of them magically
disappears without a second thought.
"In the evening, many people no longer eat at a table as a family,"
says Spangle. "Instead, each person grabs their own food, then they head to
another room or they plunk down in front of the TV to relax from their day. In
this case, TV holds their attention as they mindlessly shove food in their
And in many cases, Spangle explains, the power of habit goes into overdrive
when the mind shifts to neutral.
"Many times it's habit," says Spangle, who also authored 100
Days of Weight Loss. "We're used to eating a certain amount of food at
our meals, such as a large sandwich, and we finish it off even when we know
we're overeating or becoming too full."
What happened to the joy of eating? Of enjoying a simple meal and relishing
every last bite? Have those days gone the way of the family dinner?
"It's not that people don't want to notice and appreciate what they're
eating," Spangle tells WebMD. "It's that we've forgotten how to
separate eating from all the other activities or demands in our lives."
Focusing on Food
So how do we get our minds back on track and start focusing on food?
"The bad news is that the environment can lead us to mindlessly
overeat," says Wansink. "The good news is we can change our environment
to eat what we want and eat the quantities we want."
Slow down. "The faster you eat, the less likely you're
paying attention to your food," says Spangle. "Consider setting a timer
or your watch alarm for 20 minutes, then make sure that your meal lasts that
long. For those who tend to quickly wolf down their food without noticing it,
the 20-minute timer will completely change the way they eat."
Savor the food. "Build the habit of starting your meal
by taking very small bites and paying attention to all the details of the food,
including the temperature, texture, seasoning," says Spangle. "By
really noticing these things, you'll totally change your awareness of your
eating. You'll also find you can get a lot of satisfaction from a very small
amount of food."
Watch for the "eating pause." "This subtle cue
is related to the body indicating that it's had enough food," says
During a meal, most people unknowingly take a break, put their fork and
knife down, and stop eating for a few minutes. This is the "eating
pause." What usually happens next is mindless eating.
"After a minute or two, they will look down at their plate, notice the
food that's left, and start eating again to finish their meal," says
Spangle. "Interestingly, when people do this 'eating pause' they are
usually at the point of being satisfied by their food -- not too full, not
still hungry, but totally satisfied."
So the trick is, when you run into the eating pause, don't just take a break
from eating -- stop altogether instead. Using this technique helps you keep
your mind on your food and prevents you from overeating.
Don't be seduced by labels. "When food is advertised as
healthy or low fat, people fall for that," says Wansink. "We find that
when people think they are eating healthy food they overeat by 40%, or they
compensate by putting cheese or mayo on the food or ordering cookies or dessert
because they think they deserve it, and that has a huge impact on our calorie
Don't eat by the clock. "When people eat by the clock,
they might eat even when they're not hungry because the clock strikes
noon," says Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic
Association. "It's more important to pay attention to hunger and eat when
your body tells you to instead of your watch. When people are a slave to a
clock it can backfire."
Separate food from technology. "Don't watch TV, surf
the Internet, or read the paper when you eat because it's too easy to become
distracted and forget about the food you're eating," says Moores. "Or
if reality has it that you are going to read a paper or watch a football game
and eat, put a finite food in front of you so you're not sitting there with a
big box of snacks and an endless amount of food that you eat without a second
Be satisfied with your food. "What we hope people will
get is satisfaction from food or from the occasion of eating," says Moores.
"If people get better at listening to their body and eating when they're
hungry and eating food they enjoy, they'll be satisfied by it and eat it
mindfully. It becomes what we call 'intuitive eating,' or the act of listening
to your body and eating what your body is calling for and then by and large,
you'll be satisfied by it."