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A lot of the time we eat without even realising it. Whether it’s eating an extra mouthful or two of our main meals past the point where we no longer feel hungry just because it is in front of us, or grabbing a handful of nuts from the cupboard while we are looking for something else just because we can. This all contributes significantly to our overall daily food intake.

This type of eating pattern is called ‘mindless eating’ and means that we can eat way more than we want or plan to in a given day just because we are not aware of it. We are often focusing on something else at the time and so are completely oblivious to what we are putting in our mouths.

I have even met patients who have for years struggled with their weight and when I ask them what they ate in the last 24 hours they often omit snack foods, whether it be a biscuit here or a piece of chocolate there. This often is not a conscious decision but by honestly just not realising how many small snacks they were consuming throughout the day alongside their main meals. When I then ask them to write a food diary they are often shocked to discover that they actually eat a lot more than they realise. It is very easy for any one of us to do this as food is so abundantly present these days.

So how do you know if you are eating mindlessly? There are some basic questions you can ask yourself to gauge the amount of mindless eating that you are doing throughout the day.

  • Do you eat whilst driving?
  • Do you eat whilst reading the paper, watching TV, or working on the computer?
  • Do you eat whilst talking on the phone?
  • Do you eat whilst standing up?
  • Do you eat out of large packets rather than serving yourself a smaller portion in a bowl?
  • Do you eat when you are stressed, bored, tired, lonely, frustrated, anxious, sad or angry?
  • Do you eat when happy, excited or nervous?
  • Do you think about your next meal when you have not even finished your current meal?
  • Do you often finish a meal or snack you are not really enjoying just because it is in front of you?

If you answered yes to any of these questions chances are you do quite a bit of mindless eating throughout the day. Mindless eating can contribute to at least 20 per cent more food intake throughout the day. Overall this can mean an extra 10kgs of body fat a year. When you are focussing on other things whilst you are eating it can be very difficult to gauge when you are full and when to stop.

Also by developing a habit of associating eating and another activity together, such as eating and driving, you are more likely to continue to look for something to eat every time you get into the car. This then creates a difficult habit to break and often requires an intermediate step such as replacing eating with drinking water or herbal tea, for example, which might serve the purpose of helping to wean off the habit of chewing when you are doing other activities.

How to Overcome Mindless Eating

It is important to at least be aware of when you are more likely to do mindless eating so that you can reduce this. Overall this will mean less chance of eating more than your body needs and ‘accidentally’ putting on extra weight.

Some general tips to overcoming mindless eating include:

  1. Attempt to eat only at a designated place for meals such as the dining table or breakfast bar.
  2. Avoid eating on the couch, in bed or at your desk.
  3. Avoid eating whilst watching TV, working on the computer, reading or on the phone.
  4. Avoid eating whilst driving.
  5. Portion out a serving of snack food into a bowl instead of eating from large packets.
  6. Consider rinsing your plate or bowl between reaching for more snacks as this might help to break the cycle of bingeing.
  7. Keep snack foods out of arms reach at work and out of visual sight in the cupboard. Remember if it is out of sight it will be out of mind.
  8. Keep snack foods in opaque jars rather than clear jars, which can make it too tempting to grab a handful when you can see them.
  9. Avoid eating when feeling any extremes of emotion.

Aside from these general tips, the goal in reducing mindless eating is to ultimately learn how to eat mindfully.

How to Eat Mindfully

Eating mindfully can be the key we need to losing weight and enjoying our food a whole lot more. Eating mindfully means we are fully in the moment and able to enjoy our meal. Because we are mentally present we are aware of our hunger cues a lot more readily and so are able to stop eating when we recognise we are full.

Slow Down – As it takes around 20 minutes for the message to get from your stomach to your brain that you are full. Slowing down eating means that you are likely to not overeat and feel overfull. Try chewing each mouthful at least 20 times and put your knife and fork down between mouthfuls.

Enjoy Each Bite – Try to focus on what you are eating and enjoy every mouthful. Notice the colour, smell, taste, temperature and texture of your food. Recognise, too, that pleasure wanes with each bite as tastebuds become accustomed to what you are eating and as you become full. Observe, for example, as you eat chocolate how the first two to three mouthfuls are the most pleasurable and any mouthfuls after this
are likely to be less so. Consider stopping after just a few mouthfuls and saving the rest. You are not going to get any more pleasure out of that chocolate right now so you might as well save the ‘pleasure hit’ for later.

Deep Breathe – Many of us eat so quickly that we almost inhale our food. The problem with this is that hurrying a meal and eating while we are harried and stressed means that we will not activate a part of our nervous system, which is needed for digestion called the parasympathetic nervous system. This means that vital digestive enzymes and other digestive substances will not be released and we will likely feel nauseous, bloated and sluggish as food will not be properly digested. By taking some slow deep breaths before we start eating and in the middle of our meal we can encourage our parasympathetic nervous system to activate.

Assess Your Level of Need & Enjoyment – Before eating each meal and each mouthful ask yourself whether you really need to eat this food and whether you feel you will truly enjoy it. If you are eating out of habit or as a way of disguising a negative emotion then now might not be the right time to eat.

Similarly if you are eating a meal and you are not really enjoying it you will likely crave other foods soon after finishing. This can lead to eating double the amount. Of course, there is a level of balance in making food choices between healthier options, but as you become more in tune with your hunger cues, your appetites, and you stop depriving yourself you will find that you will naturally choose a healthier option 80 per cent of the time.

So before eating, ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this and will I really enjoy it?’ If the answer is ‘no’ to either parts of this question then consider holding off eating until you are hungry or choose something else to eat that you will enjoy.


Dr Cris

Holistic Medical Doctor, Author ‘Healthy Habits, 52 Ways to Better Health

Healthy Habits book Dr Cris