How to Conquer Mindless Eating

March is National Nutrition Month


We often pay attention to what we eat, but how about the where? The why? What we are eating on or out of? The environment in which we eat could be just as important to our goal of a healthy lifestyle as the actual food we eat.

Many of us use external cues as signs that we are full, rather that “consulting our gut”. For example, some may think it is time to stop eating when the bag is empty, the plate is scrapped clean, or the show is over. Most people gain (or lose) weight so gradually that we don't really know how it happened. Eating an extra 50 calories here, 100 calories there, can add up to big weight gain by the end of the year. This could be eating those last extra bites on your plate when you are already full or that daily piece of candy from the jar on your desk. This is called “mindless eating”.

The following tips to conquer mindless eating are adapted from the book "Mindless Eating" by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab:

1.  Big plates and spoons equal big servings! If you spoon 4 oz. of mashed potatoes onto a 12-inch plate, it will look like a lot less than if you had spooned it onto an 8-inch plate. Even if you intended to limit your portion size, the larger plate would likely influence you to serve more. And since we all tend to finish what we serve ourselves, we would probably end up eating it all. For one month, try eating your largest meal of the day on a smaller plate. A two inch difference in plate diameter — from 12" to 10" plates — would result in 22% fewer calories being served. If a typical dinner has 800 calories, a smaller plate would lead to a weight loss of around 18 pounds per year for an average size adult.

2.  Drink out of tall, skinny glasses. Our brains have a basic tendency to overfocus on the height of objects at the expense of their width. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis in Illinois is exactly the same height as its width, yet no one ever comments on how wide it is! Dr. Wansink’s research has shown that even professional bartenders tend to overestimate the amount of liquid they pour into short, fat glasses versus tall, skinny glasses. With the high amount of calories in most beverages, notably sugar-sweetened beverages, drinking out of tall, skinny glasses could be a great way to mindlessly cut calories.

3. Be careful of the “see-food” trap. If you keep candy on your desk at work, make sure it is in a dish that you can’t see through. A study done by Dr. Wansink found that those who kept candy in a clear dish on their desk ate about 77 extra calories a day – just enough for a 5 pound weight gain at the end of the year.  Out of sight, out of mind. In sight, in mind. You can also make this work in your favor – keep healthy foods easy to see, and less healthy foods hard to see.

4. Eat. Slowly.  Eating should not be a competitive sport! It takes 20 minutes for your belly to signal to your brain that you are full. We Americans start, finish, and clear the table for many of our meals in less than 20 minutes. Take lunch for example. If we are eating lunch alone, we spend only 11 minutes eating if we are at a fast food restaurant and 13 minutes in at a workplace cafeteria. This gives us plenty of time to eat one extra slice of pizza or chug a refill of soda before our bellies get the message we are full. Most importantly….

5. …When you eat, just eat. Eating a meal in and of itself should be the event. TV is a triple eating threat. Aside from leading us to eat, it leads you to not pay attention to how much you eat, and it leads you to eat for too long. Eating or drinking gives us something to do with our hands and it occupies us while we focus on the TV show. And because our stomachs can’t count, the more we focus on what we are watching, the more we end up forgetting how much we’ve eaten. The same happens if we eat while reading, or even listening to the radio. The basic rule: distractions of all kinds make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat – even when we are not hungry. When you eat, just eat.


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