Ever wondered why you keep on eating even when you’re full? You may be falling into the trap of mindless eating. By Rebekah Kendal
In a moment of unfettered craziness, I decided that a juice fast – only freshly squeezed veggie juice for days – was the best way to detox. While I’m not totally convinced it purged my body of toxins, it did make me think about food … a lot!
I thought about snacks when I was at my computer; dreaming of popcorn while I was watching TV; wandering in the direction of the fridge whenever I was bored; and fantasising about pizzas, chocolate and cheese.
Sense and sensibility
It took me a while to realise that, despite thinking about food a lot, most of the eating I do is essentially mindless. I eat while I’m sitting at my computer or watching TV. I eat when I’m feeling down or bored or stressed. I eat to treat myself. I eat because the food happens to be in front of me. I eat seconds even when I’m full. I eat because other people are eating. I eat because there is food left on my plate. Very rarely do I ask myself the question: Am I really hungry?
The mindless eating trap
According to Prof Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think, we overeat because there are signals all around us that tell us we should be eating. Instead of relying on our bodies to lead the way, we rely on external cues such as an empty plate, an appealing description on a menu or a bag of pretzels on the counter.
Researchers led by Prof Wansink at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab discovered that many factors other than hunger dictate how much we will eat: the mood in a restaurant, what wine we drink with our food, the size of a popcorn box at the movies, the plate, the shape of the glass and even the number of people dining together.
You may think you are paying attention to what you eat, but you are probably still falling into the trap of mindless eating.
The alternative to mindless eating is mindful eating. Mindfulness coach Dean Rimmer from the SheerMind Self-Leadership Institute points out that we often engage in mindless eating owing to our daily routines. We reinforce these routines every time we absent-mindedly make a decision that reinforces our habits.
‘Often this absent-mindedness is more conscious than we’d like to believe, and is engendered by an underlying lack of confidence in ourselves to make better decisions,’ explains Dean. ‘We feel tied to our negative habits and breaking the cycle feels too difficult or arduous for us to achieve. It is easier, while preparing and eating food, to let our minds wander to other tasks, stressors or entertainment. During the hurried act of eating, another opportunity to be more mindful and move towards our goals is lost.’
Mindful eating, in contrast, will not only enhance the enjoyment that you get from eating, but also allow you to approach food in a more considered way. ‘Like many aspects of our lives, eating is an integral part of our daily routine; our eating patterns are largely habitual. Approaching what and how we eat mindfully involves two elements: being present with our food, enjoying the experience and appreciating it fully; and making mindful decisions about what we eat, how much we eat, when we eat – mostly keeping perspective when making these decisions.’
One technique to be more mindful about your food choices is to keep a journal. Jot down everything you eat. If you’re aware of the reason why you’re eating (it may not be hunger), take note of that too.
‘The key to mindfulness is conscious awareness – which is what you will achieve by journalling,’ Dean says. ‘When we take the time to sit down and document an action, we take stock, think, consider and reconsider our decisions.’
While a food journal provides a useful tool, it is possible to engage in this process without one. Next time you are doing your grocery shopping, preparing food or about to eat, Dean suggests you take a few deep breaths and connect with what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
‘Building your awareness in this way will naturally manifest in real advances, whether it be buying better ingredients, taking smaller portions or simply the appreciation of the gift before you. It’s not easy, but with every good decision, your determination and commitment to mindful eating will grow.’
These tricks will keep you on track when you slip into the habit of mindless eating.
• Out of sight, out of mind. Clear counters of unhealthy snacks.
• Don’t eat directly from the package – dish up a portion and don’t go back for seconds.
• If you buy snacks in bulk, split them into portion-sized bags.
• Dish up in the kitchen instead of the dining-room table.
• At a buffet, only put two items of food on your plate at a time.
• Put utensils down between bites to slow down your eating.
• Pay attention to your food – don’t eat in front of the television or computer.
• Use smaller plates.