Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating

As I sit here stuffing my face with a diet of repeated spoonfuls of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream, I realize I have a problem.

Mindless eating.

Do you ever sit down in front of the TV, bag of chips in hand--and before you realize it, you've finished the entire bag? (There actually is an official medical term for this: dreaded empty bag syndrome.)

Or after you've finished dinner, do you find yourself watching TV and eating still more food, even though you're not really hungry? Do you eat snacks more out of boredom than out of hunger?

Have you ever gone out with a group of friends, and while talking excitedly and having a grand time, you stuff endless amounts of food in your mouth, swallow it half-chewed--and later hardly even recall what you ate?

These are all examples of mindless eating. Today, I'm going to provide you with a comprehensive list of tips and strategies to stop yourself from this hazardous habit.

This post is a bit longer than usual, but it's an important subject that is worth the extra time.

1) Don't eat out of the bag/box/carton
Readers intimately familiar with this blog know of my personal weakness for Cooler Ranch Doritos, so I'll use them as a personal example: Don't take the whole bag of Doritos to the couch with you. Instead, place a handful of Doritos into a SMALL BOWL and then close up the bag and put it away. Then eat out of the small bowl. If you head back for seconds, it will at least be a partially conscious decision.

This holds true for ice cream too. Put a scoop or two into a small bowl and eat that. Don't start in on the pint (or lord help you, the half gallon!) and then look down and see you've finished it all off.

2) Don't eat in front of the TV
There's a great image from The Simpsons where Homer is sitting down in front of the TV with the game on. He's got bags of chips and bowls of dip arranged all around him: on his lap, next to him, even arrayed above him and behind his head. He eats with both hands, like a crazed and pear-shaped windmill, chewing audibly of course (if I'm thinking of the right episode, one of his coronary arteries briefly shuts off during this scene--Simpsons experts, please correct me if I'm wrong here). And of course he can reach around himself for any chip or dip combination, all without moving off the couch at all!

Sure, this might seem like an extreme example (uh, not as extreme as you might think for me...). But when you're eating and paying attention to something else like the TV, it is simply too easy to look down, and--to your horror--find that the bag of chips you thought you just sat down with is totally empty!

Yes, you've just experienced a classic case of dreaded empty bag syndrome. You've consumed 1,000 calories of Doritos via rote autonomic motion of hand to mouth for the past hour and a half--without even noticing. Don't let this happen to you by being distracted by the television.

3) Don't keep junk food around the house
This one sounds obvious, but it's less obvious than you'd think. Laura and I aren't above making a desperate late night run to the grocery store for salty snacks, but three out of four times the notion of having to get into the car and drive to the grocery store is enough to kill the idea off. So instead we stay home and don't stuff Doritos into our gullets that night.

If you're going to have food around the house at all, first try not to mindlessly eat it. :) But beyond that, just don't tempt fate. Don't have a treasure trove of junk food and goodies lying all around your home quietly awaiting your next attack of mindlessness.

If it so happens that you DO slip into "mindless mode" (and we all do from time to time), try to have the targets of your mindless eating be things like fruit, vegetables, or something on the healthy side. Think about it: if you're going to mindlessly eat something, by definition you aren't going to be paying all that much attention to what it is. Ergo, have it be stuff that's not energy-dense, won't make you regretful, and won't make you feel awful afterwards.

Here's a special strategy for those times like the days after Halloween when you're bound to have goodies in the house: take your leftover candy to the office and give it to your coworkers. The best part of this strategy is that your coworkers will actually like you for it, AND it will help your career when they die off before you do.

4) Don't keep junk food around the office either
I work in a somewhat stressful work environment and I'm particularly susceptible to after-lunch chocolate cravings (once again, readers intimately familiar with this blog know of my near-pathological addiction to chocolate).

If you were to do a time and motion study of my afternoon work, this is probably what it would look like:

  • Type an email, stuff a handful of M&Ms in mouth.
  • Type ANOTHER email, stuff a couple Lindt truffles in mouth.
  • Read an income statement, repeat.
  • Watch one of my stocks go up, triumphantly stuff another Lindt truffle in mouth
  • Watch one of my stocks go down, dejectedly stuff a handful of M&Ms in mouth...

...and so on. After an afternoon of this, I'll feel loagy, queasy, cognitively foggy--and my teeth will hurt. Worst of all, I didn't even enjoy the chocolate all that much.

I will confess that my M&M eating isn't totally mindless, because I separate them out by color first and then eat each color one at a time. Still, it doesn't stop me from eating more than I should.

The easiest solution here is don't keep snacks in your drawer. If you have to keep snacks around, try and stick to fruit or veggies or at least unsalted nuts.

And if you work with evil colleagues who bring donuts, cookies or other mindlessly tempting goodies to the office (note that you yourself will get a special exemption from this rule on the first business day after Halloween), either avoid the kitchen area or get these alleged "colleagues" transferred to another division. :)

5) Brush your teeth!
I sincerely hope you do this already, at least twice a day.

What I'm talking about, of course, is not your normal brushing, but rather using brushing as a sneaky technique to put an end to the day's food intake.

Let's say it's 8:30, I've finished dinner an hour or two ago, and despite the fact that I'm not all that hungry, I'm looking around for a snack. If I instead go and brush my teeth, I won't eat again the rest of the night. Nobody wants to gnaw on salty Doritos with a minty clean mouth.

I also use this technique during those dangerous afternoon hours at work. Sure, I might indulge myself with one or two Lindt truffles at 2:30pm, but then I make sure to cut myself off and head to the men's room to brush my teeth. Result: I don't eat any more food until dinner time. Try this technique and see if it works for you. I've found it to be highly effective.

6) Trick yourself with size
This is an insight I'm borrowing from Brian Wansink, who is the author of the extremely useful book Mindless Eating. One of the key themes in his book is how our minds judge serving sizes by context, not by absolute measurements. Here's an example: send two groups of people to an all you can eat buffet. Give one group smallish plates and give the other group large-ish plates. Guess what? The group with larger plates will eat significantly more food! When we put our food on larger plate, our brains think we are getting a smaller portion. So we pile more food onto that plate (and eat it all of course) without even realizing it.

The same holds true in many other eating situations. If we eat ice cream scooped with a larger than normal scoop, we'll eat more ice cream. If we eat Doritos out of an enormous bag, we'll eat more Doritos.

I don't know whether to laugh or be horrified by the fact that in study after study people ate less food when they did nothing more than put it onto smaller dishes. Talk about mindless! But hey, if the technique works, why not take advantage of it? Use smaller dinner plates. Don't eat your Doritos out of the bag--eat them out of that small serving bowl instead.

7) Notice
Slow down. Chew your food. TASTE your food. Enjoy it. Take your time eating it. Don't talk and natter throughout dinner. Think about the tastes you're experiencing. What is good or not so good about it?

These suggestions are reminiscent of the ones I've urged you to use when you're in recipe modification mode. Make a habit to be more mindful whenever you eat, and to notice all the subtleties of what you're eating.

When you are out with friends at a restaurant, by all means enjoy yourself, but don't let yourself get so distracted that you don't pay attention to what you're doing with your food. Instead, when the food arrives, take a moment to look at it, study it and think about it. And then go right back to nattering with your friends.

In the reading I did in preparation for this post, I saw a couple of articles that suggested being the last person at the table to start eating. This sounds like a great idea because it enforces you to pause a bit and get into "noticing mode" before you eat.

Theoretically though, what happens if there are two or more "last starters" at the same table? Do you both starve to death? Flip a coin to see who has to start first? I'm kidding of course.

So, in order to not look like a weirdo staring off into space while all your friends start to eat, why not take a brief look around the table and take in each of your friends' dishes as well as your own? Ask them about their food as they try it. Get yourself into noticing mode and enjoy the whole process of eating, rather than just autonomically attacking your own dish with your knife and fork.

8) Stop eating before you feel full
We're all cavemen (and women) deep down inside. Our bodies were trained over millions of years to overeat and consume food wolvishly because this might be our last meal for a while. Who knows when the next woolly mammoth might stroll by our cave?

Of course in the modern world, food is practically everywhere around us. So we need to learn to NOT listen to our bodies in this one respect. Recognize that hunger (or better said, "fullness") is a lagging sensation for people. You don't actually feel full the moment you are full. Instead, you will feel full 10-20 minutes later. How remarkably unhelpful.

That's why if you actually eat until you're full, you feel awful 10-20 minutes later. For my part, I usually have to go and lie down and close my eyes for a few minutes so I don't explode like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's Meaning of Life.

So my advice to you is this: stop eating when you are 70-80% full. Be mindful that your feelings of hunger will mislead you into eating more than you should, and that your sensations of fullness will lag to the point of uselessness. Make an active choice not to listen to these sensations.

9) Leave some on the table
We're not in the Depression, and you don't live with your parents. You don't have to clean your plate any more.

When you're out having dinner in a restaurant, take some food home with you. When you're eating at home, use the small plate technique. And no matter what size plate you use, remember to eat until you're 70-80% full, and then save the rest back for leftovers later. This has the added benefit, of course, of saving you from having to cook an extra meal.

And when it comes to dessert, keep in mind that the second piece of pie will actually taste better tomorrow morning. You don't need to squeeze it in tonight!

10) Let down your guard once in a while.
I don't believe in pure ascetism. Every once in a while you have to let your hair down and misbehave. Pretend that the next woolly mammoth won't stroll by your cave for a while.

So, yes, Laura and I will do a snack run to the grocery store on occasion where we buy all sorts of ice cream and chips. You already know about my weaknesses for Cooler Ranch Doritos, Hint of Lime Tostitos and of course, dark chocolate.

I cannot stop these addictions, I can only hope to contain them. Consequently, I practice moderation in my overindulgence. I will let myself overeat once every few weeks. And I know that, once in a great while, it's okay to experience dreaded empty bag syndrome. Sometimes life is about just a bit of occasional gluttony. Just recognize it for what it is, and don't let it happen to you too often.

Be mindful! And feel free to share your thoughts, reactions and criticisms in the comments section below.

Related Posts:
How to Modify A Recipe
Why I'm a Part-Time Vegetarian
Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer
How to Live Forever in Ten Easy Steps

Related Topics:
Brian Wansink's book Mindless Eating
mindlesseating.org -- Dr. Wansink's website. Contains a blog which is well worth a read.

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Anonymous said...

Good stuff, good ideas.


Taylor said...

This post could not have come at a more opportune time. I literally just finished a big bowl of the infamous Casbah Curry Chicken and my brain still hasn't received the "full" message from my stomach. To think, I was about to sit back down in front of the TV, instead I'm here reading this post.

Water and a book it is!

Anonymous said...

I liek to avoid eating anything where I can't identify - or pronounce - the ingredients.

No if I could only stop the mindless drinking...

Anonymous said...

I like to drink lots of water with a meal so I have a comfortable full feeling at the end of the meal without an enormous calorie intake. I must confess occasionally the water is substituted with beer.

This tip is a requirement when eating out to dilute highly salted food. Somewhere I read salt equals cheating.

Daniel said...

Drinking extra water = great idea. Thanks for the input!

By the way, regarding my own mindless eating, I've now gone two (heavily mindful) days without eating any chocolate. A personal record for me.


EyeStamp said...

Another good one: don't eat standing up....so, you are NOT allowed to eat while preparing breakfast for the kids as it is a very mindless kind of eating. I also have to add: no eating while driving, unless I was late getting to the office. In which case I just figure its better than eating standing (at least in this case I'm seated!) and it is ALWAYS ok to drink a good black travel mug of Peet's coffee (especially the Italian roast) while commuting!

Great blog, Dan!

J Wrightnour, Laurie's "Babe" buddy

Anonymous said...

This blog is great,i'm always finding myself snacking on different things while fixing up a sandwich in the kitchen,eating cornflakes out of the box and biscuits from the tin :S
I'm always eating my tea in frnt of the T.V or computer.I'm definatley going to start heading for the bathroom to brush my teeth when i find myself craving some cookies :)
i like your advice about leaving leftovers and the second piece of pie tasting better tomorrow.
thankyou =)

Daniel said...

Thanks for your feedback. I'd say that of all my suggestions in this post, the one that elicits the most positive feedback is the "brush your teeth" one.

Thanks for reading!


Unknown said...

I really liked your tips! I have used some of them myself, but its always a nice reminder to keep myself one track. My favorite point that you made was about allowing yourself to be gluttonous once in a while. I COMPLETELY AGREE and I'm glad to find out I'm not alone. Once every few weeks, I find that I WANT to just feel stuffed and totally satisfied after eating. Once in a while being the key element though!!

Susan said...

Great tips, and if you find yourself without a toothbrush, some minty sugar free gum is a good substitute.

Another thought on mindless eating - do some analysis and "notice" when you tend to do it - after the long commute home? Before dinner when you're famished? After dinner when you're bored? Once you figure out when you tend to do it, you can work on breaking the habit.

Our brains develop an association between behaviors, which is one of the reasons smoking is such a hard habit to kick. So if you snack in front of the TV, you're brain begins to expect snacks when you sit down, even if you aren't hungry. Breaking the association only takes about 2 weeks. So change your habits for a couple of weeks, and it won't be so hard. Watch TV at a different time of day, or don't watch at all (just for a couple of weeks). If that's not possible, drink a HUGE glass of water before sitting down. Do your internet surfing at the library for a couple of weeks, or right after a meal so you're not hungry.

Maybe you'll discover that you're actually hungry when you get home from that long drive (as I did) and so you really do need some food. Make the choice before you get home to eat something nutritious - fruit/veggies, nuts, cheese, whole grain crackers, or a little of all of them! - and don't do it in front of the TV (or computer, newspaper, etc). My boss has a problem with snacking (chocolate is one of her favorites!) mid-afternoon, so I suggested she reserve that time to make phone calls (can't eat while you're talking) or even go make rounds - visit other people in the building in person. Changing things up a little can make a big difference.

I love your suggestions on being mindful - most of us don't pay enough attention when we eat, so we're missing some of the fun. Eating should be a pleasurable experience, not just filling up the tank. You can't be mindful when you're doing something else, and I think this contributes to overeating because we don't get fully satisfied by the experience if we weren't paying full attention to it.

Very thoughtfully written, Dan. I love your stuff! And I must confess that I, too, am challenged when in the presence of "Hint of Lime" Tostitos...so I never buy them unless I'm taking them to a party where I can share and leave the bag when I go home!

OutJet said...

I agree with #10.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I need this bad, good examples that make you open your eyes. :) Thanks

Anonymous said...

The only suggestion I seem to have a problem with is "sit down and enjoy your food." Most busy families and people are not like others who have at least 20-30-40-50 minutes to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.

I have to even push myself really hard to eat for at least 10 minutes.

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous: Give yourself some credit: eating over a 10 minute period is certainly better than inhaling your food. But I think this is a habit that one can build gradually, and it's a habit that families can build too. We are all busy--it just depends on whether we choose to make it a priority or not.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

This is so helpful! I love it! Thanks so much this article is great. =)

Anonymous said...

My sister and I always use very, very tiny spoons and forks to eat any dessert. I'm not even sure where my parents found them, as I've never seen anyone else with spoons so tiny, but they do get used! They really help us savor desserts. We also tend to put food on the smallest dish it will possibly fit on. Our saucers are probably the most commonly used plates, because they are the smallest. I think that these habits started as a coping mechanism to my parent's health obsession. They would bring very few desserts into the house, and my sister and I noticed that the desserts seemed more satisfying if they were served with mini dishes and silverware. So it was a way of increasing our enjoyment, and has since become habit. And the smaller plates are marginally faster to wash.

I have to admit that I do very poorly with keeping treats out of the house. I need to know that I can munch, or else I will binge. However, this is dealt with by obtaining very, very expensive treats (that are worth the price) because that introduces a very immediate cost to eating it too quickly. $10 pints of ice cream, chocolate that costs about $30 per pound, stuff like that. It tastes amazing, but the expense helps prevent me from going overboard. I've grown accustomed to the expensive stuff, so a cheapo candybar isn't even appealing to me anymore. My daily food is very cheap though (I love cabbage, lentils, homemade breads, eggplant, soup...). I am very price conscious, so making my desserts very expensive is really helpful.