The average American makes roughly 200 food-related decisions per day according to Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, we make food choices from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. I know what you’re thinking, “who makes 200 food choices a day?! Definitely not me!” …guess again.
Here is an example of what your morning stream of thoughts and decisions around food may look like:
“Should I eat breakfast or should I fast? If I eat breakfast, should I eat oatmeal or eggs? How many eggs should I eat? I’ve heard having more than one egg a day is bad for my cholesterol, should I have something else instead? (Side note: eating eggs is okay!), If I make eggs am I going to be late for work? Should I just pick up something on the way instead? … and the stream continues. And that was only talking about eggs!
Don’t get me started on coffee…
The Problem: We are distracted! We live in a culture of multitasking. Where scarfing down food while driving home or chowing down at your desk while working is the norm.
Ask Yourself: Can you remember the last time you stopped, focused on, and truly enjoyed your food? If not, you may be victim to mindless eating!
In order to fully understand mindful eating and strategies to eat more mindfully, we must first address the underlying, and often unconscious issue, mindless eating.
What is Mindless Eating?
Mindless eating involves the unconscious decisions we make about food without paying attention to what we think, feel, how much we are eating, or the driving factors behind why we are eating.
Factors that Drive Mindless Eating
In a society where we are eating more and moving less, mindless munching can be extremely harmful for our overall health. Here are 9 Factors that have been shown to drive mindless eating.
#1 Portion Distortion
Deep rooted in American culture is the idea that “bigger is not only better, but it’s the best!” From bigger plates to larger serving utensils to increased servings sizes, we are consuming more now than ever before.
We see words like “supersize, “king-size,” and “extra large,” and we are sold.
Because we want to get the most bang for our buck but in reality, this is a HUGE cost to our health as larger portion sizes are often correlated to both decreased food quality and healthful ingredients.
One study from the National Institutes of Health found that individual’s who ate on a 12-inch plate vs. a 10-inch plate served themselves 22% more food, specifically pasta.
#2 Consumption Comparison
Who we eat around can affect how much we choose to serve ourselves as well and impact the amount of food we choose to consume.
We are more inclined to get seconds or thirds if others around us serve themselves additional portions.
Lighting and brightness can also affect how much we eat.
A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research showed that patrons dining in well-lit spaces were 16-24% more likely to order healthy dishes than those in dimly lit rooms, due to a higher level of alertness.”
Brighter lighting encourages healthful eating, while dim lighting encourages less-healthful eating.
#4 Distraction – Digital & Social
In a technologically advanced society, our phones, tablets, computers, and social media usage is drawing our attention away from the “here and now,” and causing high levels of distraction.
Not only does technology impact our food choices, but socializing while eating can actually affect how much we are eating.
For example, in social settings we are likely to eat more as a result of being distracted by conversation, hosting, or just enjoying time with family and friends that we forget to check-in with ourselves and assess our hunger levels.
#5 Food Convenience
Food is all around us, whether it be in the form of a fast food drive-thru, snack item strategically placed in the checkout aisle, or a food delivery service, food has become more easily accessible.
What used to take us time, energy, and effort is now readily available at the snap of our fingers.
One study conducted by Wansink looked at food consumption and convenience. The study found that if you move a candy dish from a person’s desk to just six feet away, it decreases candy consumption by about half. The reduced consumption was not due to difficulty of walking, but rather the additional six feet gave people time to pause, think, and assess whether or not they were truly hungry.
Often the answer was no.
We allow ourselves to get to a point of extreme hunger.
This is often a result of not eating at all or not eating the right types of food.
Physiologically, when our blood sugar drops we become increasingly more hungry.
Why? This drop in blood sugar tells our pancreas and liver to send chemical signals to our brain to induce hunger so that we eat and begin to raise our blood sugar back to normal levels.
However, when this happens, we are more inclined to choose energy-dense, or higher calorie, foods like candy or chips. These quick-absorbing forms of sugar will not only raise our blood sugars higher than we need, but they will also cause an unwanted sugar-crash later a few hours later.
#7 Lack of sleep
Insufficient sleep can affect our food choices tremendously.
Sleep deprivation decreases our ability to make sound decisions, and simultaneously increases our cravings for higher fat, sugar, and carbohydrate foods.
This is a result of changes in our two hunger-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin. More specifically, our leptin, or feel-full hormone, decreases, while ghrelin, our feel-hungry hormone, increases.
It’s true, we do eat with our eyes.
When we see advertisements of foods that are visually appealing, whether on TV, in a magazine, or on a billboard, we find them more appetizing.
For example, a fast food commercial highlighting new sizzling crispy chicken wings can trigger your hunger just by visuals, texture, color, lighting, and staging.
…you see my point.
Stress can affect our food choices due to shifts in hormone balance.
When we are stressed, our bodies increase cortisol, our stress hormone, levels, and induce leptin resistance which can lead to overeating.
Ask Yourself: When stressed, what kinds of foods are you reaching for and potentially overeating? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not carrots and hummus…
Rather we are consuming foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. These foods temporarily increase our dopamine and endorphin levels which make us feel good, followed by a drop in levels, and further, the desire for another endorphin rush…and the cycle continues.
Ultimately, stress causes unwanted physiologically changes that play a large factor in why and what types of foods we choose to eat.
Mindfulness and Mindful Eating
Now that we’ve addressed mindless eating and its driving factors, let’s define mindfulness and mindful eating.
Mindfulness is…the present awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment without judgment or feelings that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel at any given moment.
It allows us to notice our own thoughts and reactions to create opportunities for change.
Further, mindfulness can be applied to our relationship with food and eating.
Goals of Mindful Eating include:
- Paying full attention to the process of eating and enjoying that experience
- Bringing awareness to the smells, sounds, textures, and tastes of food as well as the environment in which it is served
- Noticing feedback that our body gives us and how we are feel when we eat certain foods
- Choosing foods that promote health and longevity
Benefits of Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is not only a way to bring awareness to our eating experiences, but it also aids in our overall health by:
INCREASING: Fiber and antioxidant intake, telomere length, serotonin levels, insulin sensitivity, sleep quality, meal enjoyment, and feelings of happiness
DECREASING: Intake of low glycemic foods and trans fat, cortisol levels, fasting blood glucose, triglycerides, inflammatory markers like c-reactive protein (CRP), central adiposity, our perception of hunger, stress levels, food guilt, emotional eating, and even our body weight
How To: Mindfully Eat in 5 Easy Steps
Mindful eating is a whole-body sensory experience. Here is my 5-Step Guide you can follow to begin mindfully eating!
Step 1: Arrive Mentally
Be fully present without wanting to be somewhere else – be present in the moment.
Step 2: Prepare Physically
- Sit at a table
- Clear the space around you
- Set a place for yourself using plates and utensils you like
- Set lighting you enjoy and maybe even play calming music
- Minimize distractions (i.e. TV, tablet, phone, distractions)
- Assess what kinds of food you have in front of you and where they came from.
- Express gratitude for the meal
- Visualize yourself enjoying the meal and feeling happy and satisfied afterward
Step 3: Am I Hungry?
During this step it is important to not only to determine IF you are hungry, but also assess the motivation behind WHY you are eating and differentiating between true physical hunger vs. emotional hunger.
Physical vs. Emotional Hunger
Physical Hunger – Although not a criteria, some common signs of physical hunger include: low energy, consistent thoughts of food, an intensifying desire for food over time, the thought that consuming food would be satisfying, not having eating for a long period of time, and/or hearing your stomach growl
Emotional Hunger – Common signs of emotional hunger include: cravings for sweets or high fat foods, feeling bored, eating to improve mood in the short-term, wandering around the kitchen searching for food, having a “quiet” stomach.
Now, let’s say you determine that you are in fact physically hungry, let’s further assess hunger levels and note where they should ideally be prior to and following a meal.
Step 4: Assess Your Hunger Level
Hunger is one of the physiological components that drives us to eat…let’s look at the Hunger Scale.
The scale above is denoted 1-10; the lower the number on the scale the hungrier you are.
1 is…I am so hungry I am going to bite my arm off, while 10 is I am so stuffed I need to go put my sweatpants on.
I don’t want you at either extreme. Why? Because being at a 1 will often result in overeating and making poor food choices, while being at a 10 will cause physical discomfort and increased stress on your digestive system.
You always want to be somewhere in the middle.
Scenario: Let’s say you were invited to a friend’s house for dinner. Upon arrival you feel hungry and are ready to eat.
Now…what if your friend told you it would be about another 20 minutes before dinner would be ready. Ideally, you should be able to wait. This is a good sign you were at a good hunger level to start, around a 4. By the time you are finished eating you want to be at about a 7. You feel satisfied, but if offered a dessert you would be able to enjoy some, or you would be able to eat again a few hours later.
Overall, you want your want your hungry and satiety levels to fall between 4-7, while avoiding the extremes.
Step 5: Tuning into Your Body
In this step we focus on:
- Noticing our emotions when we eat,
- How our body feels as we eat, and
- Reminding ourselves that there is no “bad” food, or guilt associated with eating.
Rather, food is neutral and we are becoming aware of how food makes our whole-body feel.
We want to nourish our bodies and supply it with good nutrition to live, feel, and perform optimally.
10 Mindful Eating Tips
1. Eat smaller, more frequent meals – Eating smaller more frequent meals, ~every 3-4 hours, can help prevent your blood sugar from spiking, avoid unwanted food cravings, and provide your body with increased opportunities for nourishment
2. Reflect on your hunger levels and what is driving your hunger – Ask yourself, am I experiences real hunger? Or is am I experiencing emotional hunger?
3. Keep a food journal to reflect on your food choices –Hhow did your food choices made you feel? What were your thoughts during your meal/snack/drink experience? Try writing them down or use an app like MyFitnessPal.
4. Slow Down – Try using smaller plates or utensils, eating with chopsticks, chewing your food 30 times before swallowing, or eating with your non-dominant hand.
5. Make your meal last at least 20 minutes
6. Sit down when eating
7. Plan meals and snacks ahead of time
8. Focus on what and how much you are eating – Avoid focusing on what your neighbor is doing
9. Avoid distractions – Don’t look at any screens (Ex: phone, tablet, computers, TV,)
10. Think about the taste, texture, smell, of the food you are eating…be present in the moment!
Now that we have addressed mindless eating, mindfulness, and how to put mindful eating into practice, there is only one thing left to do….EAT!
Jasmine El Nabli MS, RDN
Creating healthy eating and lifestyle habits without the right tools, skills, and knowledge is often seen as a daunting task, but that’s where I come in. I am here to show you that becoming the happiest and healthiest version of yourself can be done!
Through the combination of a whole-body approach and scientific research, I empower and educate individuals on how to implement small changes into their daily life that in turn lead to sustainable and lifelong healthy habits.