“Mindless eating” is a term coined by food psychologist Brian Wansink to describe the many subconscious decisions we make every day about what, when, and how much food to eat. In his research, he’s found that we can make a few simple adjustments to our environments to ensure that we push our subconscious in a healthier direction.
Here are three things you can try for yourself to avoid the pitfalls of mindless eating:
To achieve smaller portions at meals without feeling deprived, use a 9- or 10-inch plate instead of the standard 12-inch plate. You’ll get a smaller portion, but it will look like plenty of food on the smaller plate, fooling your brain and your stomach into thinking you’re getting plenty. Using smaller utensils like teaspoons and salad forks will limit how much food you can put in your mouth at one time, promoting slower eating and better digestion. Use small glasses or cups for any beverage that isn’t water.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
- Don’t bring home the foods that you know you tend to overeat. If they aren’t in the house, you won’t see them, and won’t eat them.
- Make “healthier” foods more accessible than more indulgent foods. If you decide to bring home sweets and snack foods, stash them in the back of the fridge or pantry and not out on the kitchen counter. Put fruits, vegetables, nuts and other nutritious foods in the front of the fridge, and pre-cut or portion out some of your favorites for easy-to-grab snacks.
- If you buy large quantities of food at discount stores, put most of it away in a basement or garage. You will eat more of it if it’s all stored in the house.
- Minimize temptations at work. Bring a pre-packed lunch and a couple of snacks so you won’t be tempted by treats brought in by coworkers.
Practice Mindful Eating
Wansink’s studies have shown that people often eat not because they’re hungry, but rather because they see food, are with people who are eating, or are bored. And they don’t always stop eating when their hunger is quenched, but will often continue to eat until the plate is empty, the social event has ended, or the TV program they are watching is over.
Before you start eating, check in with your stomach (not your mouth, which may be salivating over that burger you just saw an ad for) to determine if you’re truly hungry. You can use a handy tool like the Hunger/Satiety Scale if it helps. Once you’ve started eating, you’ll need to build checkpoints into your meal so that you reassess your hunger before you have the chance to overeat. A great way to do this is to start with smaller portions than you’re used to (this is a good time to break out those 9-inch plates). After you’ve finished the first helping, give yourself a few minutes before going for seconds. Remember, it takes about 20 minutes after eating for the brain to register what’s going on in your stomach. If you’re still hungry after the first helping, it’s okay to go for seconds.
These are just a few of the ways you can hack your environment to prevent overeating. For more, take a look at Wansink’s new book “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life”.
Carol White, MS, RD, CD, has her Master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University and a Bachelor’s degree in writing. Blogging about nutrition allows her to blend her dual passions for writing and nutrition education. She currently works as a clinical dietitian in several skilled nursing facilities in the Seattle area.