Mindless Eating and Your Waistline: Is There A Connection?

We spend a good deal of our time each day thinking about what we’re doing tomorrow, what went wrong yesterday, and making plans for the weekend.

Who among us hasn’t had an experience like one of these:

  • You get in the car to head home from work.  When you turn the car onto the street where you live, you can’t recall the drive home.
  • You’re introduced to a new team member before a meeting at work.   Once you shake their hand and say ‘nice to meet you’ you can’t recall their name.
  • You have a deadline for an important project at work so you decide to stay in for lunch.  You warm up a frozen meal and take it back to your desk so you can continue working.  It takes you less than five minutes to eat the meal and as soon as you finish you have a craving for a snack from the vending machine.

All of these are examples of mindlessness.  And, in each situation our lack of attention has a potentially negative impact on the outcome either by way of car accident, embarrassment or overeating.

Mindless eating can lead to an expanding waistline.

Mindless eating can lead to an expanding waistline.

Mindless Eating and Your Waistline

Getting control of mindless eating may be one more way to get to a desired weight or maintain the healthy weight you’re at.  It is relatively new concept that is gaining momentum as people struggle with the pitfalls of dieting: deprivation, disappointment, self-loathing, and eventually – in most cases – a regain of the weight lost.

Many people are familiar with the bottomless bowl of soup and stale popcorn studies. (You can read more about it here.) Both studies showed that the more food that is presented to people the more they will eat.  Most of us continue to eat even after we’re full.  The bottomless bowl of soup study found that because the bowl kept filling up, people kept eating without giving any thought to how much they were consuming.

Elissa Epel, founder and director of the Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment at the University of California, San Francisco, has created a program called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training – or MB-EAT.  MB-EAT teaches people how to taste and savor their food, get rid of the guilt associated with eating certain foods, and recognize the signs of both hunger and fullness.

Epel has done substantial research on the role that stress plays in mindless eating.  She believes that one of the ‘most reliable’ paths to obesity is stress because it changes our appetite and stimulates overeating.  Epal says that 50-60 percent of women eat for reasons other than hunger.

She tested the impact of the MB-EAT program on a group of women and the results showed that when the women practiced mindful eating their anxiety, chronic stress, and deep belly fat decreased.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Laboratory and author of the book Mindless Eating says that after conducting hundreds of food studies he’s “increasingly convinced that our stomach has only three settings: 1) We either feel like we’re starving, 2) we feel like we’re stuffed, or 3) we feel like we can eat more.  Most of the time we’re in the middle, we’re neither hungry nor full, but if something’s put in front of us, we’ll eat it.”

And there are plenty of times when something is put in front of us!

  • You just had a fresh salad with a lean chicken breast for lunch and are obligated to attend the 2 p.m. going away party for a co-worker where white cake dripping with sugary icing is served. You’ll just have a small piece.
  • You join friends a drink after work.  You’re on your second drink and they begin ordering deep fried onion rings and coconut shrimp for everyone to share. How bad can a couple of onion rings and fried shrimp be?
  • You’re in front of the TV after dinner with your hand in a bag of chips.  You plan to eat only a few.  Before you know it you’re at the bottom of the bag.

You’re in the midst of mindless eating.

Simple Tips For Controlling Mindless Eating:

There are things that you can do to increase your awareness of mindless eating.

  • Don’t eat in front of the TV.  Watching TV while eating will keep you from realizing when you’ve had enough.
  • Try not to eat lunch at your desk at work.  If you don’t have a choice, don’t work or surf the net while you eat.  Focus on what you’re eating, how it tastes and smells and be alert to the trigger that tells you when you’re full.
  • Plan ahead when eating out.  Restaurants are notorious for serving large portions and it’s easy to become like the subjects in the bottomless bowl of soup study.  They more they give you, the more you will eat.  Know what you’re going to order before you arrive, or ask for a to-go box when you order so you can shave off half of the order to save for the next day.
  • Journal how you feel when you’re eating.  Satisfied. Guilty. Anxious.  Use words that will help you focus on the emotional connections that you have with food.
  • Slow down.  Take time to enjoy your food.  Smell it. Savor it. Gulping down your lunch in five minutes will leave you feeling shortchanged of a true lunch experience.
  • Pay attention to signs of hunger and fullness.  Are you starving, are you stuffed, or could you just eat more?  Eat accordingly.
  • Don’t eat out of obligation or guilt.  Just because someone offers you something to eat that you don’t want or need doesn’t mean you’re obligated to eat it.  Politely say that it looks delicious, and then graciously decline.
  • Portion out snacks into a small bowl or a baggie rather than eating from the big bag.
  • Limit alcohol.  Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and we have a tendency to eat mindlessly after a couple of cocktails.
  • Learn to recognize mindless eating triggers:  stress, boredom, anxiety, loneliness, anger.  Find outlets for your emotions in ways other than eating.  Walking, engaging in relaxation breathing, meditation, and listening to soothing music are some of the ways we can get our mind off of our problems.

Find Additional Resources at Susan Alper’s Website

Susan Alpers, Psy.D is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness has some ways that she helps her clients develop control over mindless eating.  Her website, Eatingmindfully.com, has tons of resources including quizzes, downloadable handouts, videos and even a phone app that may help you gain more control over your eating habits.

Over To You

When do you find you’re most susceptible to mindless eating? When you’re bored, depressed or stressed?

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  1. Eduarda C. says:

    I guess in all three situations 🙁 But I am trying really hard to be in control and I think I am doing well: I am just 3 pounds over the weight that I wish 😉 I’m getting there!

    I loved this post!