We live in a world dominated by food. Almost every gathering and social function involve some form of refreshment. Unfortunately, most of the food we come in contact with when we’re out and about is low in nutrition and high in calories. Convenience reigns when it comes to eating on the go. No wonder fast food restaurants have made such inroads into the American lifestyle! How much easier can it be than pulling up to a fast food window and retrieving a hot bag of food? You don’t even have to get out of your car and burn calories to grab a meal. Pull up and snatch a take-out bag is what millions of people do every day on their lunch hour. No wonder the obesity epidemic shows no sign of slowing! We have yet to change the fundamental problem: the lure and easy accessibility of fast, cheap food.
But, there’s another problem. We also don’t eat as mindfully as we should. Rather than listening to hunger cues, many people eat to combat stress and nosh more when they feel overwhelmed, lonely, or unhappy. These folks let emotions tell them when and what to eat rather than true hunger. But, if we can learn to eat more mindfully, we can conquer mindless overeating AND make healthier food choices because mindfulness makes us more aware of what goes into our bodies. That’s important, don’t you think? Now, let’s look at some simple strategies to curb mindless overeating.
Quantify Your Hunger
There’s a simple step you can take to curtail mindless snacking. Evaluate your level of hunger before eating a meal or snack. One test some dietitians recommend before a snack is to ask yourself whether munching on an apple sounds appealing. If you’re truly hungry, you’ll want that apple, but if you’re eating out of boredom or because you’re stressed, an apple doesn’t sound as appealing as a bag of chips. When you eat out of boredom or to satisfy an emotional need, you usually crave sweet stuff or fatty foods.
Also, make sure you’re well hydrated before sitting down to eat a meal. It’s easy to confuse mild dehydration with hunger. Your body needs water, but it’s easy to misinterpret the signals and give it food instead. Plus, the symptoms of mild dehydration are similar to low blood sugar – headache, brain fog, fatigue, and feeling lightheaded. It’s not hard to see how the two could be confused. Learn to identify when you truly are hungry.
Get Rid of Distractions
Multitasking is a way of life these days. We munch while we surf the internet, talk on the phone, watch television, and when we’re doing almost anything other than focusing on our plate. Unfortunately, doing so leads to greater calorie consumption. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinic Nutrition monitored groups of people while they ate. One group ate their meal while watching television while the other didn’t.
The results? Exactly what you’d expect! Those who ate while distracted by television consumed more while participants who focused on their food ate less at the meal AND later in the day. Are you guilty of distracted eating? If so, unplug and tune into your meal. Focus on the food you’re eating and on relaxing. Use meal time as a much-needed period of silence and a break from the busy day. Doing this will help you de-stress and that, in and of itself, can help you take control of mindless eating.
Don’t Eat on the Go
Along the same line as not eating when distracted, don’t nibble when you’re on the go. In one study, researchers asked healthy females to eat a cereal bar under various conditions. Surprisingly, the females ate fives time more of the bar when they were walking around as opposed to sitting down. Again, this shows the power of distraction and the impact it can have on your eating habits. But, you don’t have to be walking to be distracted. Have you ever seen people nibbling on a sandwich while driving? It’s a bad practice for your waistline and for your well-being as you’re driving while distracted too. Become more aware of what you’re doing when you’re eating and learn to give a meal or snack your full focus.
Simplify Your Eating Environment and Stop Mindless overeating
Studies show that eating in a cluttered or confusing environment encourages mindless overeating and a lack of mindfulness. A study even showed that people eat more snack calories when they’re in a cluttered or messy kitchen. So, there’s more than one reason to do a kitchen clean-up. One is to toss processed foods and snacks that have little nutritional value and the other is to streamline your kitchen and eliminate distracting clutter. When you eat, eat on a table that’s free of anything but your plate and utensils. Don’t place food dishes on the table to encourage second helpings.
Change Your Way of Eating
Changing up the way you eat can help you be more mindful. If you’re right-handed, try eating with your left hand. Skip the fork and eat with a pair of chopsticks instead. Such practices force you to focus on how you’re eating and what you’re eating, thereby making you more mindful. Plus, it’s harder to overeat when you’re eating with your non-dominant hand or with a pair of chopsticks.
The Bottom Line
We overeat due to internal factors and external factors, such as cluttered eating environments and distractions that take our attention away from a meal. Yet, by being more aware of these factors and correcting them, you can avoid the pitfalls of mindless overeating. Also, being more aware can lead to smarter food choices. As you learn to question your level of hunger, you might also ask yourself whether there’s a better alternative to the fast food restaurant where you typically get your meals.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Distracted eating may add to weight gain”
J Health Psychol. 2017 Jan;22(1):39-50. doi: 10.1177/1359105315595119. Epub 2016 Jul 10.
Association for Psychological Science. “A Cluttered Kitchen Can Nudge Us To Overeat, Study Finds”
Environment and Behavior. Vol 49, Issue 2, 2017.
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