Mindless versus Mindful Eating

Mindfull vs. Mindless Eating HabitsOvereating often occurs because we are not aware of how the environment around us affected our eating and what the quantities of food we consume are. Brian Wansink, PhD, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University, has written a book called Mindless Eating, in which he describes research studies that reveal how little awareness we often have about our eating and what influences it. Amazingly, even his students, who were PhD candidates in nutritional science, were unaware of how their environment influenced their eating. These are some of his findings:

  • The average overweight person underestimated his or her calorie intake by 30-40% (versus 20% for normal-weight people). The more they ate the greater percentage they were off in their estimates.
  • People ate 53% more popcorn if given a large container versus a small one, even though it was stale and they had just eaten.
  • Even PhD students in nutritional science ate 31% more ice cream at a party if their bowls were big rather than small.
  • When a candy dish at their desk at work was transparent, people ate 71% more candy versus if the dish was opaque, even with the same amount of candy in the dish.
  • If Hershey’s kisses were within reach at a secretary’s desk, he/she ate nine per day on the average, versus four if the candy was six feet away.
  • The more people are around us, the more we tend to eat; if we have 7 or more friends around us, we eat double the food than when alone.

Living in the United States, which has the highest obesity rate of any large country; it is easy to become overweight just following what others in our culture do. Our biggest weapon in being “counter-culture” is awareness: knowing what is in the food that we eat and how much of it we are eating. Wansink’s findings have some clear implications for people who want to lose weight:

  • Think of times when you tend to be least aware. Often these times occur when people are in social situations, when they are served food by another person, and/or when they are tired, bored or stressed. Come up with a plan for controlling eating in these situations.
  • Consider filling out a food diary during difficult times to make you aware of your eating habits and the number of calories you consume.
  • Think of how you can make a 100-calorie change in your eating or exercise per day. Examples would be: to cut out one can of a sugared beverage per day; skip one dessert per day, walk for 15 minutes daily; regularly take stairs rather than elevators, park further away from stores or other destinations, and/or walk while talking on a cell or portable phone.
  • Preplan how much you will eat during parties and social occasions and how you will control your food intake. An example would be to fill up one plate during a buffet, consume a preset number of chips at a Mexican restaurant, or decide to eat half a portion at a restaurant and to ask for a box before you start eating. Consider alternative activities with friends besides those associated with overeating.
  • Control your environment so as to make problem foods less available. Shop from a list and when not hungry so that problem foods are not in the house. Put any such foods in the back of the panty or refrigerator and store them in small containers.  (Many people find it helpful to put pre-measured meals or snacks aside.) Resolve never to take a big box or container in front of you and eat from it. Keep seconds away from reach and serving containers off the table.
  • Use smaller plates, bowls and glasses. For many people, their use saves many pounds each year.

Reference: Brian Wansink, Ph.D. Mindless Eating. Bantam Dell Publishers, New York, 2006.

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