Step 1: Locate cookies. Step 2: Flop down in front of TV. Step 3: Commence munching ... and munching ... and munching. Step 4: Eventually come to your senses, realize that primetime is long gone -- and wonder where all those cookies went.
Sound familiar? It does to "Renee," who experienced unconscious overeating episodes like this several times a day when she was a teenager.
"I would start eating, and I was like an animal. I would go into some kind of trance," says Renee, who asked that her full name not be used. Usually, she wouldn't stop binge eating until she was interrupted or too full to swallow another bite, and then she felt compelled to purge to keep from gaining weight.
While most people don't binge with the same abandon, even occasional bouts of unconscious overeating -- also sometimes called "eating amnesia" -- can lead to poor nutritional habits and weight gain. But many people enter the eating-amnesia zone without even realizing it, says WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Registered Dietitian Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
"Everyone eats this way to some degree, whether they're snacking in the car, cleaning the crumbs off their kids' plates, or at a cocktail party standing next to the buffet table with their hand stuck in the bowl of nuts," Zelman tells WebMD. "Any time that food is present, and it's not a sit-down eating event, there is a tendency for this kind of hand-to-mouth eating without sensing that you're full -- or were even hungry to begin with."
Lack of Attention
One reason people overeat in these situations is that their thoughts are elsewhere. Studies show that people who dine while engaged in social interactions, television shows, or mental tasks eat more than those without distractions.
In one recent study in Paris, 41 mostly healthy-weight women lunched in the laboratory under one of four conditions: alone, with a group, while focusing on the food, or while listening to a detective story. When the meal was accompanied by the detective story, the women took in an average of about 72 more calories than during the silent lunch.
But distractions don't work the same way for everyone. Much appears to depend on a person's attitude toward food. People who generally keep a tight rein on their eating habits -- called "restrained eaters" by researchers -- are far more likely to overindulge when distracted than "unrestrained eaters."
Recently, 60 female students at Swarthmore College (half identified as restrained eaters; the other half as unrestrained eaters) participated in a study in which they snacked on M&Ms, nacho chips, and cookies while trying to remember a series of slides. The "restrained" group ate much more during the memory task than when there was no task, but the "unrestrained" eaters ate less when engaged in the task -- apparently because they were busy trying to concentrate.
"At first we thought the unrestrained eaters might be consuming more during the distraction because they were less able to keep track of how much they were eating," says Traci Mann, PhD, an assistant professor of social psychology at UCLA and a coauthor of the study. "But it turned out that both groups had a reasonably accurate idea of how much they ate. So it wasn't lack of awareness. The restrained eaters just didn't seem able to correlate the information with their diet goals."
Big Portions Encourage Overeating
Another factor contributing to unconscious overeating is the portion sizes of today's foods. From 1977 to 1996, average portions of salty snacks, soft drinks, desserts, and fast foods in American increased by about 31% -- equaling about 78 extra calories per snack.
And unfortunately, the more food you have in front of you, the more you're likely to eat. In a study at Pennsylvania State University, 51 men and women were treated to once-a-week laboratory lunches of macaroni and cheese in portions varying from 2.5 cups to 5 cups. No matter how much they ate when offered the smallest portion, the participants ate an average of 30% more (162 calories) when offered the largest portion.
"The interesting thing is that most of them were pretty unaware that the portions had changed," says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State. "We also surveyed them about their hunger afterwards, and their hunger and fullness were about the same, regardless of the portion size and how much they ate."
Another study by the Penn State researchers, reported this month at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) meetings in San Diego, looked at whether people compensate for overindulging one day by eating less the next day. For two days in a row, each participant got the same daily allotment of calories, in portions that ranged from 100% to 200% of the recommended daily caloric intake. Even when the participants had eaten several hundred extra calories on the first day, they ate just as much the second day.
"When we doubled the portions, the women took in 500 calories more per day and the men 800 calories more," Rolls says. "So in two days, the women were accumulating 1,000 extra calories and the men 1,600. Talk about mind boggling."
Knowing When You're Full
"What is the basis of satiation?" asks John M. Poothullil, MD, a diabetes researcher at Brazosport Memorial Hospital in Texas who studies the physiology of hunger. "Most people would say they stop eating when they feel full. They feel full because their stomach is distended. But you don't eat the same volume at every meal, so there has to be more to it than stomach distention."
Poothullil believes hunger and fullness are complex mechanisms that operate differently depending on the situation and the person. Certainly, while some people happily wolf down an extra-large pizza and a liter of soda at a sitting, others declare themselves stuffed after a small soup and salad.
Even when people reach the point where they feel full, they don't always stop eating. If the environment is conducive to munching -- as at a party or holiday feast -- it's easy to get carried away. And salty snacks, fatty foods, and sweets can often prompt people to keep eating long past their stomach's normal stopping point.
"Sometimes you tire of one food, but you still have just as high an appetite -- or even higher -- for another food," says Rolls. So while you can easily turn down an extra serving of carrots, you still clamor for that slice of carrot cake.
For many people, mindless munching is also a way of coping with feelings of anxiety and unhappiness. While indulging in an occasional "comfort food" at the end of a bad day does little harm, frequently using food to escape from negative emotions may lead to bigger problems. Case in point: Renee says she was so dependent on food to overcome her feelings of loneliness as a teenager that she felt "like a drug addict."
Zelman sums it up this way: "Food does not solve problems. In fact, it usually sets you up for additional bad feelings. After you eat that pint of super-premium ice cream, you'll still have the same emotional issues, and now you also have to cope with the guilt of eating too much ice cream."
If you find yourself regularly using food to soothe your emotions, Zelman recommends trying to work out your feelings in other ways, such as with exercise or relaxation techniques. "But if you find you still can't control your eating, and it's controlling you instead, you should seek out professional help."
That's what Renee did. After living with her eating disorder until the age of 21, she finally sought help from Overeater's Anonymous, an organization that she says, "saved my life."
Increase Your Eating Awareness
For milder forms of mindless munching, here are some do's and don'ts to follow.
- Eat standing up, on the run, in the car, at the computer, or in front of the TV.
- Deny yourself occasional treats. This just sets you up for failure.
- Deprive yourself of food if you're hungry.
- Use food to cope with stress or depression.
- Get discouraged if you overeat -- you'll do better next time.
- Eat sitting down and relaxed, in the place where you normally have your meals.
- Stock your kitchen with healthy foods such as fruit, veggies, and low-fat yogurt.
- Buy individual serving-size packages of snack foods, so you won't overindulge.
- Put only a small serving on your plate at the start of your meals, and wait before you take seconds.
- Put aside extra restaurant food at the beginning of your meal, or wrap it up to take home.
- Soothe emotional upsets with exercise, a comforting bath, or a chat with a friend.
- Keep a journal in which you write down the foods you eat and your feelings about your diet.
Changing a longstanding TV and cookie-chomping routine may be difficult at first, but it can be done, says Zelman. "It just takes perseverance and willpower. If you do it for seven days, you're halfway there. If you do it for two weeks, it's a new habit already."