Mindless Eating And What To Do About It

mindless eating

I recently ran across a fascinating book by Brian Wansink’s titledMindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Wansink is a Cornell researcher who studies how we eat. From his research, he found we eat for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Now that news is hardly earth shattering; we all know we are guilty of eating when we aren’t hungry. However, one finding from his study stood out:

Every single one of us eats how much we eat largely because of what’s around us. 

It seems we are all slaves to our environment and that includes the people we live and eat with. Your overeating has much less to do with willpower than it does with “food cues” that result in mindless eating. One example that Wansink gives in his book is what happened when he rigged soup bowls to be bottomless. He inserted a hidden tube to make sure that no matter how much soup a person ate, the bowl would not empty.

People with normal bowls ate 15 ounces. Some with the rigged bowls, more than 32 ounces. That’s a whole quart of soup!!! What made people feel full was their eyes not their stomachs.

Wansink discovered that you can increase or decrease the number of calories someone eats by 20% without them realizing.

He calls this the “mindless margin.” And over a year it can easily cause you to gain or lose ten pounds. If we eat way too little, we know it and if we eat way too much, we know it. But, there is a calorie range where we feel fine and are unaware of a small difference. Over the course of a year, this mindless margin of mindless eating would either cause us to lose ten pounds or to gain ten pounds.

Changing your environment is the easiest and most powerful way to change your behavior. Rearranging the things in your home and at work, while carefully choosing the people you eat meals with, will bring greater and more effortless results than anything else.

Here are Wansink’s rules for eating less:

One: Don’t eat with food in view.

If you have cookies or chips sitting out at your house, you probably weigh eight pounds more than people who don’t. Those with breakfast cereal sitting in view typically weigh nineteen pounds more; those with soda sitting out weigh twenty-five pounds more than someone who doesn’t.

At a buffet, slim people are more likely to sit facing away from the food, while heavier people are three times more likely to sit looking at it. Mindless eating occurs by watching other people eat, causing us to think we need to eat more.

Two: Make food harder to reach. Keeping serving dishes off the table reduces how much we eat. Candy on your desk creates mindless eating that is likely to result in a double-digit weight gain.

Three: Plan ahead. Skinny people peruse the buffet before deciding what to eat; heavier people dive in and eat everything they don’t hate.

Four: Slow down. It takes twenty minutes for the “fullness signal” to tell us we’ve eaten enough, but the average American meal takes less than twenty minutes to complete.

Five: Eat fewer foods. Never have more than three items on your plate at a time. You are likely to eat 23% more with four options.

Six: Watch those you eat with. If you eat with friends, you’ll probably eat twice as much. If your waiter or waitress is overweight, you’ll eat more. Especially beware of skinny over eaters; they make your brain think you can eat more without consequences. BTW, very often those “skinny over eaters” really aren’t. They eat fewer meals and so consume more at one sitting.

Dr. Kathryn Waldrep’s take on Mindless Eating. 

“I think Brian Wansink’s findings are right in sync with what I’ve learned in my research and what I’ve observed from my overweight patients. Eating mindlessly can be controlled. It’s not so much about willpower than it is about having a plan. You can count the calories or points in everything you put in your mouth (which may cause you to be more obsessed with food) or you can use portion control and cut out snacks which is what we have done with our weight management program, PLATE. Our members are learning how to eat by following the PLATE rules for portion sizes AND making snacking non-negotiable. Of course, having the other members in their group as support really helps them stay on track. You have a builtin accountability feature. If you can’t afford a personal coach, its a good way to go.” Check out the program here.


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