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.
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!
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.
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