By Raelynn Prokop, RDN
We've all been there. Sitting down to a movie with a popcorn bucket larger than our heads and before the movie ends, we've polished off the entire thing by ourselves. Or perhaps, at work, while typing away at your computer, you've finished your lunch and can't even remember tasting it. These are examples of the phenomenon called mindless eating. Essentially, eating during distraction which causes us not to fully register that we're eating at all. While we've all had to multitask while eating occasionally (hey, life gets busy!), the issue lies in making this a habit. So what's the problem? Mindless eating can easily lead to overeating! It also prevents us from fully enjoying our meal and may even cause us to eat less nutritionally dense foods. But there are ways of breaking this habit if you believe yourself to be one of the many who find themselves mindlessly munching away.
So what can we do? Let's start with the obvious. Turn off the distractions! The T.V., computer, tablet, phone, ipod - even reading or studying all distract us from paying attention to our food. If our brain is distracted, it can’t concentrate on how our stomach is feeling – whether it’s full or still hungry. This means we are not paying attention to how much we are eating or how the food tastes, smells, and feels.
Think of a fast food restaurant. The owners want you in and out the door as fast as possible so the next customers can come in to dine. The lights are harsh and bright, the chairs are hard and uncomfortable and the service is extremely fast. Now let's consider the fine dining experience. The lighting is soft. The seating is cushioned and comfortable. The business wants your experience to last an hour or more. In this type of environment, you have time to feel satisfied with your dinner and enjoy your meal. Try to have this type of experience at home. Set the table, take out the nice dishes, buy pretty napkins, put flowers on the table, and dim the lighting. With that being said, pre-portion your plate in the kitchen. Serving family style with food on the table can lead to you grabbing extras just because its sitting in front of you. There are some environments we don't have much control over. Our work cafeteria, for example. However, we can still choose to eat in the cafe with our phones turned off versus in our office in front of a computer.
It takes about 20 minutes, for our stomachs to tell our brain that we have had enough to eat. Twenty minutes. If you find yourself part of the rapid eaters club, there are some things you can try to slow yourself down. Put your fork down between bites. Set a timer for twenty minutes. Drink a sip of water between bites or use your non-dominant hand while eating. Or simply just try to slow down and enjoy your meal.
Another mindless eating pitfall is eating snacks straight from a bag or box. When we eat one cracker from the box at a time, our brain only ever sees one cracker. But one cracker and one cracker and one cracker add up quickly; this tricks our brain into thinking we’ve only had one cracker and it can be hard to realize how much we just ate. By portioning 8 or 10 crackers on a plate, our brain sees all of the crackers and we feel more satisfied after eating the full snack.
Another consideration is proximity of your snacks. Snacks that are most easily accessible are eaten more often. The m&m's in a jar on your desk are going to be eaten more frequently than the ones on a shelf in the back of your cabinet. You're more likely to grab a piece of fruit sitting in a bowl on the counter than from the back of your refrigerator.
Lastly, think about why you are eating. Are you hungry or are you eating because you saw a candy dish or a bag of chips on the counter? Did someone offer you food and you don't want to feel rude by declining? Is it a holiday or celebration? Do you eat because the clock tells you to? Do you eat because you are nervous/excited/angry/bored? It's ok to eat for reasons other than hunger occasionally but when we start bringing awareness to this, we are better able to identify mindless eating and more importantly, how often we are actually engaging in the behavior.
Signs of true hunger include growling stomach, hunger pains, tired/sleepy, cranky, dizzy/light-headed. Signs of hunger can also be confused with signs of thirst. Many of these signs are same. Before grabbing something to eat, think about whether you are thirsty or actually hungry. Know that hunger may change from day to day. Try to eat only when you are truly hungry. If you are truly hungry, then it’s easier to feel satisfied. If we do not eat because of hunger, it’s harder to know whether you are full and it's a lot harder to feel like you're done eating. Stop when comfortably full & satisfied, but not stuffed. As you begin to eat, notice how the food tastes. Food may not taste as good as it did when you first started eating; this is a sign you may be nearing fullness. Lastly, consider food choices. Foods that you find irresistible are harder to stop. These foods can especially trap us into mindlessly eating. That's not to say we can never eat foods we find irresistible (how boring our lives would be!) But we should maybe dish out a serving of Ben & Jerry's instead of taking a spoon to the entire pint.
We all fall into the occasional need to shovel a meal in our mouths and get on with our day. However, making this habitual can truly lead us to overeat and not enjoy food as much as we should. Pausing and reflecting on where, what, how much and why we are eating can help to form a more positive relationship with both food and our health.