On average, you make more than 200 decisions about food each day However, you’re only aware of a small fraction of them. The rest are performed by your unconscious mind, and can lead to so-called mindless eating. Mindless eating can make the difference between under-eating or overeating. It can also promote either easy weight loss or unexplainable weight gain. This article explores why mindless eating happens and what you can do to stop it.
It’s an age-old problem for many of us. Maybe the food tastes too good. Or we feel compelled to clean our plates. Perhaps we fail to recognize that we’re full and just keep eating and eating and eating.
But most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry; instead, it’s because of “packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances.Well, you get the idea that Brian Wasnick, PhD, director of the Cornell Food Lab, is trying to get across: We overeat because of external signals. Or habit. Or both.
And if it’s the external world that is tapping us on the shoulder and silently urging us to “Eat, eat!” then wouldn’t it stand to reason that we can alter the way we see or act in the external world so that we can get a different message? Right?
Yes, perhaps, but that doesn’t come naturally or easily to many of us. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of suggestions so that the next time you’re tempted to overeat, you’ll be able to stop and listen to that voice of reason. After all, with the over 200 decisions Wasnick says we have to make about food each day, wouldn’t it be nice to make the right decisions?
Wrap it up
This can be done a few ways: If you’re at a restaurant, ask the server to wrap half of your dinner before you even dig in; if you’re at home, wrap up whatever food tempts you so that it’s tough to open and maybe not worth the effort after all.
Use Visual Reminders
Behavioral scientists believe one of the main reasons people overeat is because they rely on external rather than internal cues to decide if they feel hungry or full. Naturally, this can lead you to eat more than you need to. To demonstrate this point, researchers provided participants with an unlimited amount of chicken wings while they watched the American football Super Bowl.
Half of the tables were continuously cleaned while the bones were left to accumulate on the other tables. Interestingly, people with bones on their tables ate 34% less, or two fewer chicken wings, than people who had their tables cleaned. Another experiment used bottomless bowls to slowly refill some participants’ soups as they ate. Participants who ate soup served in the bottomless bowls consumed about 113 extra calories 73% more than those who ate from normal bowls.
Interestingly, those who ate more soup didn’t feel more full. Most also estimated their calorie intake to be the same as those eating from the regular soup bowls. These two studies show that people tend to rely on visual cues, such as chicken bones or the amount of soup left, to decide whether they’re full or still hungry.
To make this natural tendency work in your favor, keep evidence of what you eat in front of you. Examples include the empty beer bottles you drank at a barbecue, or the plates used for previous courses at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Sit down to eat
Turning off all outside distractions and focusing on your food helps you to slow down, be mindful of what’s on your plate, and savor it and actually remember that you’ve eaten.
Eat before you go out
It may seem silly to eat before you go out to eat, but if you arrive famished, you’re likely to cram anything into your mouth, even if you don’t want it or like it, just to satisfy your raging hunger. And that “anything” is probably unhealthy and fattening.
Favor Smaller Packages
Another external cue that can cause you to overeat is the size of your food packaging. In fact, eating from larger packages can lead you to mindlessly consume as much as 20–25% more calories. Researchers confirmed this tendency by providing participants with small or large packages of spaghetti, ground beef and tomato sauce.
Those given the large packages prepared 23% more food than those given smaller packages. Interestingly, they also ate most of the extras, which amounted to an additional 150 calories. Another study gave participants either a half-pound (227-gram) or one-pound (455-gram) bag of M&Ms. Those given the large bags ate 66 more M&Ms an extra 264 calories than those eating from the smaller bags.
However, packages that include pause points may help diminish this effect, since they give you time to decide if you should keep eating. For example, participants eating potato chips from cans of Pringles in which every 7th or 14th chip was dyed red ate 43–65% fewer chips than those eating from cans with no dyed chips. Similarly, people eating from a large bag of 200 M&Ms consumed 31 more candies and 112 extra calories than people given 10 small baggies of 20 M&Ms.
Put it out of sight
Psychologist Charles Emery of Ohio State University has published his research in the International Journal of Obesity on the way the home environment influences eating behavior. After examining the homes of 100 people, his team found that the people who were not obese had less cold storage (like refrigerator space) and therefore less food in their house; on the flip side, in the homes of the obese, food was much more visible. And visible means it’s easier to access. So, you might want to store your most tempting foods high on a shelf or all the way in the back of the refrigerator, and put the more healthy foods, like veggies and fruit, up front and center.
Use Smaller Plates and Taller Glasses
Studies show that people tend to eat 92% of the food they serve themselves. Therefore, reducing the amount of food you serve yourself can make a significant difference to the amount of calories you consume. One easy way to reduce portion sizes without noticing the change is to use smaller plates and taller glasses.
That’s because big plates tend to make your food portions look small, encouraging you to serve yourself larger amounts of food. Simply using 9.5-inch (24 cm) plates instead of 12.5-inch (32 cm) plates can help you easily eat up to 27% less food.
Additionally, studies show that using tall, thin glasses instead of wide, short ones can reduce the amount of liquids you pour yourself by up to 57%. Therefore, pick wide, short glasses to help you drink more water and tall, thin ones to help you limit alcohol and other caloric beverages.
Ditch the bag
Snacking directly out of a bag sets up the perfect storm for snacking mindlessly. You’re setting yourself up for an “Oops, didn’t realize I ate the whole thing.” Instead, pour a serving of that snack into a bowl or plate and then put the box or bag away. If that’s too hard, there are always portion-control products that do it for you.
Research shows that having a wider variety of food options can lead you to eat up to 23% more
Experts label this phenomenon “sensory-specific satiety.” The basic idea is that your senses tend to get numbed after you’re exposed to the same stimulus many times for instance, the same flavors.
Having a wide variety of flavors in the same meal can delay this natural numbing, pushing you to eat more. Simply thinking there’s more variety can also fool you. Researchers found that participants given bowls with 10 colors of M&Ms ate 43 more candies than those given bowls with 7 colors, despite all M&Ms tasting the same.
To help sensory-specific satiety work for you, try limiting your choices. For instance, pick only two appetizers at once during cocktail parties and stick to ordering the same drinks throughout the evening.
Keep Some Foods Out of Sight
Researchers report that the popular saying, “out of sight, out of mind” applies particularly well to mindless eating. To illustrate this point, one study gave secretaries Hershey’s Kisses in covered bowls that were either clear, so they could see the candy, or solid, so they could not.
Those given clear bowls opened them to get candy 71% more often. They consumed an extra 77 calories per day on average, compared to the other group. Scientists believe that seeing food pushes you to consciously decide whether to eat it. Seeing it more often increases the chances you’ll choose to eat the food. Make this work in your favor by hiding tempting treats while keeping healthy and nutritious food visible.
Change up the size
By using a smaller plate, bowl or scoop or a different shaped glass, you naturally will consume less. Was nick and his colleagues found that larger plates make a serving of food appear smaller than it truly is; the reverse goes for smaller plates. In one experiment at a health and fitness camp, the larger the bowls, the more cereal campers took and consumed.
Not only did they eat more, but they estimated the amount to be 7 percent less than the group eating from the smaller bowls thought they ate. Why not serve healthy foods (like veggies and fruit) on larger plates and less healthy foods (you know what those are) on smaller plates to “trick” yourself into eating less? Was nick and team also have shown that you’ll pour less and drink less yet still be satisfied when you use tall, skinny glasses for calorie-laden beverages. Use your wide glasses for water and other calorie-free drinks.
Increase the Inconvenience of Eating
The more work that’s required to eat a food, the less likely you are to eat it.
To demonstrate this, researchers tried a new version of the Hershey’s Kisses study above. This time, all secretaries were given clear bowls of candy. The bowls were placed in three different spots around the office: on the desk, in a desk drawer or six feet (1.8 meters) away from the desk.
The secretaries ate an average of 9 candies a day when the bowl was on the desk, 6 if the bowl was in the drawer and 4 if they had to walk to get to the bowl. When asked why they ended up eating less when the bowls were placed further away, the secretaries stated that the extra distance gave them the time to think twice about whether they really wanted the candy.
Make this work for you by picking snacks that require some extra work, or by keeping less nutritious snack foods out of reach. Better yet, get in the habit of serving all foods on plates and eating only while sitting at the table. This inconvenience might be just what you need to keep yourself from mindlessly snacking out of boredom or while preparing dinner.
Slow eaters tend to eat less, feel more full and rate their meals as more pleasant than fast eaters. Scientists believe that taking at least 20–30 minutes to finish a meal allows more time for the body to release hormones that promote feelings of fullness.
The extra time also allows the brain to realize you’ve eaten enough before you reach for that second serving. Eating with your non-dominant hand or using chopsticks instead of a fork are two easy ways to reduce your eating speed and make this tip work for you. Chewing more often can also help.
Unplug While You Eat
Eating while you’re distracted can lead you to eat faster, feel less full and mindlessly eat more.
Whether this is watching TV, listening to the radio or playing a computer game, the type of distraction doesn’t seem to matter much. For instance, people watching television while eating their meals ate 36% more pizza and 71% more macaroni and cheese.
And, it seems that the longer the show, the more food you’re likely to eat. One study noted that participants watching a 60-minute show ate 28% more popcorn than those watching a 30-minute show. Luckily, this effect seems to apply to nutritious foods as well as junk foods, since participants watching the longer show also ate 11% more carrots.
Scientists note that longer distractions extend the amount of time spent eating, making you more likely to overeat. In addition, eating while distracted may cause you to forget how much you’ve consumed, leading to overeating later in the day.
Indeed, another study noted that participants who played a computer game while eating lunch felt less full and snacked on nearly twice as many biscuits 30 minutes later, compared their non-distracted counterparts.
Give into your cravings
If a food you love is strictly off limits, what happens? You start craving it even more. And then, the next thing you know, you’re eating it a lot of it too much of it, because you don’t know when, or if, you’ll get it again. Give yourself permission to have a small amount of what you crave. We all deserve a little treat now and then. But “little” is the operative word here.
Choose Your Dining Companions Wisely
Eating with just one other person can push you to eat up to 35% more than when you eat alone. Eating with a group of seven or more can further increase the amount you eat by 96%. Scientists believe that this is especially true if you eat with family or friends, because it increases the time you spend eating, compared to when you eat by yourself.
The extra table time can push you to mindlessly nibble what’s left on the plate while the rest of the group finishes their meal. It may also encourage you to order a dessert you normally wouldn’t. Luckily, sitting next to slow eaters or people who normally eat less than you can work in your favor, influencing you to eat less or more slowly.
Other ways to counter this effect include choosing in advance how much of your meal you want to consume, or asking the server to remove your plate as soon as you’re done eating.
Eat According to Your Inner Clock
Relying on external cues like the time of day to determine your level of hunger may lead you to overeat. A study demonstrated this idea by isolating participants in a windowless room with a clock as their only time cue. This clock was then artificially controlled to run faster.
Researchers noted that those who relied on the clock to know when to eat ended up eating more often than those who relied on internal hunger signals. Interestingly, normal-weight participants were less likely to rely on the clock to determine whether it was time to eat. A great tip I give clients who have difficulty distinguishing physical from mental hunger is to ask themselves whether they’d readily eat an apple.
Remember, real hunger doesn’t discriminate between foods.Another telltale sign of mental hunger is a “taste” for something specific, such as a BLT sandwich. A craving for a specific food is unlikely to indicate real hunger.
Beware Of “Health Foods”
Thanks to clever marketing, even foods labeled as healthy can push some of us to mindlessly overeat. “Low-fat” labels are a prime example, because foods low in fat are not necessarily low in calories. For instance, “low-fat” granola is typically only 10% lower in calories than regular-fat granola.
Nevertheless, study participants given granola labeled as “low-fat” ended up eating 49% more granola than those provided with the normally labeled granola. Another study compared calorie intake from Subway versus McDonald’s. Those who ate at Subway consumed 34% more calories than they thought they did, while those who ate at McDonald’s ate 25% more than they thought.
What’s more, researchers noted that the Subway clients tended to reward themselves for their supposedly healthy meal choice by ordering chips or cookies with their meal. This tendency to unconsciously overeat foods that are considered healthier, or compensate for them by having a side of something less healthy, is commonly known as the “health halo”.
Steer clear of the effects of the “health halo” by picking items based on their ingredients rather than their health claims. Also, remember to pay attention to the side items you choose.
Do Not Stockpile
Research has shown that buying in bulk and stockpiling foods can push you to eat more. A study investigated this effect by providing a group of normal-weight college students with four weeks of snacks. Some received a normal quantity of snacks, while others received double that quantity.
Participants who received the double portions ate 81% more calories from snacks per week than those who received the smaller snack portions. Avoid falling for this effect by purchasing only what is necessary and trying not to buy snack foods for future events or unexpected visits.Finally, if you really must stockpile items, make sure to keep the extra items well out of eyesight.
Maximize Food Volume
Eating large volumes of food tricks your brain into thinking you ate more, helping decrease the likelihood of overeating.
Researchers examined this effect by serving participants two smoothies identical in calories. However, one had air added to it. Those who drank the greater-volume smoothie felt fuller and ate 12% less at their next meal.
An easy way to add volume to your meals without increasing the calorie content is to pick high-fiber foods with a low energy density, such as vegetables. That’s because extra fiber and water add volume, which stretches the stomach and helps you feel more full.
Fiber also helps slow down the emptying rate of the stomach and can even stimulate the release of hormones that make you feel satisfied. A good rule of thumb to maximize food volume is to fill at least half of your plate with vegetables at each meal.
Bonus tip: Plan ahead.
I love this suggestion of Wasnick’s: When you’re at a cocktail party, play the “rule of two.” Put just two items on your plate at one time; when you’ve finished them, go back for two additional items. People report consuming a lot less than they typically would, he says. After all, you’ve likely already had your favorite things right from the start.
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