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.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 25, 2008
6 min read

It seems when Americans sit down to eat, our minds are out to lunch. Whether it's the newspaper on the kitchen table, the morning news on TV, your co-workers you're dining with, or simply the world passing you by, food is the only thing we're not thinking about when we eat. The problem is, our absent-minded way of eating is starting to make a difference when we step on the scale -- and not in a good way.

"Regardless of how tuned in we believe we are to what we eat and how much we eat, we are really a nation of mindless eaters," says Brian Wansink, PhD, professor and director of Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

So if we're not focused on our food, what is it we're thinking about when we sit down for a meal? Do we give any thought at all to what's on our forks, or do we just open up and consume?

Experts give WebMD tips on how we can stop our absent-minded way of eating and start thinking before we open our mouths for a mindless feast.

"The average person during the course of an average day makes over 200 food-related decisions," says Wansink, author of Mindless Eating. "But if you ask someone what that number is, they say around 30."

That could mean that many of the choices we should be making regarding the food we eat are made for us when we're seduced by our environment.

"If we simply give people a larger plate size, in some cases, they'll end up eating 25%-50% more food just because the dish they're eating from is bigger," says Wansink. "Whether it's the time of day, who we are with, the lighting, the size of dish, the variety of food- -- all of these things end up influencing us as we make food choices."

While the brain that's between our ears doesn't seem to have a huge role on the food we put between our lips, that doesn't mean it's not having an impact on our waistlines.

"If you look at all the factors that influence your food choices over the course of a day, if you eat 20% more calories than you need because of those factors, then at the end of the year, that's about 40 pounds of extra weight," says Wansink. "So it makes a huge difference at the end of the year, and that's what we call the 'mindless margin' -- we lose and gain weight by a few calories a day."

So if we're not paying attention to our food, what is it we're pondering?

"Even when you're eating with others, say at a lunch meeting, it's easy for people to get caught up in the conversation and forget to pay attention to their food," says Linda Spangle, RN, MA, author of Life is Hard, Food is Easy. "Suddenly, they look down and realize their plate is empty, but didn't really notice what they ate."

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 Spangle.

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 mouths."

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."

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 Spangle.

    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 intake."

  • 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 thought."

  • 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."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn. Linda Spangle, RN, MA, author, Life is Hard, Food is Easy and 100 Days of Weight Loss. Brian Wansink, PhD, author, Mindless Eating; professor and director, Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Ithaca, N.Y.

View privacy policy, copyright and trust info