By: Collins Hodges, PsyD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Have you ever looked down at a bag of chips you were eating and wondered where they went? Or, have you had the experience of driving to work only to notice later that you had already eaten a portion of your prepared lunch? Other familiar examples may include having a snack while surfing the web or scarfing down a hamburger while at a stoplight. What do all of these situations have in common? The decisions we make about food are made without you even being aware that you are making them. In other words, we are putting food in our mouths without even being aware of it. Food is eaten just because it is there. Unfortunately, today’s fast-paced culture lends itself to eating on the run, whether it is during a business meeting, while on the computer, or while watching television. Psychologists call this phenomenon “Mindless Eating.” That is to say, mindless eating is eating without awareness. Without self-awareness, people eat without regard to the quality and quantity of food passing their lips.
There are five factors that contribute to mindless eating: disinhibition, distracted eating, lack of awareness, emotional eating, and external reasons. Disinhibition simply means eating when you’re not hungry. You may be bored and decide to eat in order to have something to do. Distracted eating occurs when you are sidetracked by television, work, driving, etc. Lack of awareness refers to eating without any attention being paid to the type and/or quantity of food. Emotional eating can play a large role in mindless eating. Many people turn to food as a source of comfort when they are experiencing negative emotions such as sadness, nervousness, etc.
Mindful eating, on the other hand, means to EAT WITH ATTENTION. When we focus our attention on what we’re eating, we can make better choices. It should be noted that people beginning to practice mindful eating should be patient with themselves. After all, a lifetime of mindless eating isn’t going to just go away with the snap of a finger. Instead, keep the following things in mind as you seek to better your health: portion size, avoiding distractions, hunger cues, plan-pack-prepare, logging eating behavior, and developing the skill of focused eating.
Portion size plays a large role in mindful eating. Think about what it feels like when you’re satisfied. Typically, the more food we’re served, the more we eat. Therefore, put a little less on your plate. A general rule of thumb is to put an amount of food on your plate equivalent to the size of your fist. If the food is larger than the size of your fist, it is probably too much. Slow down when you eat and avoid rushing through your meal. Eating without distractions is a particularly important component of mindful eating. Find a quiet place without cell phones, television, responsibilities from work, computers, newspapers, etc. Listen to your hunger cues. Do you need to clean your plate or can you stop when you feel satisfied? When you do this, your body naturally regulates. Reset your eating schedule and focus on eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. You should feel full but not stuffed. Because overeaters are accustomed to eating in response to emotional and/or environmental triggers, becoming aware of your body’s physical cues related to hunger will become paramount in the process of learning to eat mindfully. Pack, plan, and prepare for meals. Always have something on hand for those times when you are truly hungry and can’t get to a healthy choice. Helpful examples may include homemade trail mixes, fresh fruits, and Greek yogurt. Because mindful eating will be new to you, take a few days and write everything that you eat down on paper. This will illustrate and highlight your personal habits and areas for improvement. You can do this with paper and pen, or you can use one of the many food log apps available on your phone. Finally, when you sit down to eat, focus your mind on the process of eating. Listen to yourself chew. Observe the taste and texture of your meal. Enjoy your food for once and practice this active enjoyment one bite at a time.
It may also be helpful to keep in mind the following mindful eating techniques:
a) Take a small bite of food (and serve only the amount of food you think you will need)
b) Close your eyes and chew it thoroughly (20-30 seconds) in a silent atmosphere
c) Enjoy every bite, while paying attention to texture, taste, and temperature
d) Eat without any distraction, without watching television or playing on your computer/phone or even any ideas running through your mind
e) Take a deep breath and exhale after finishing every bite
f) Express gratitude and appreciation that you are able to taste something so healthy and nice
g) Stop eating when no longer hungry (continue to improve in this area as you gradually become more attuned to your physical signs of hunger and satiety)