6 Ways to Tame Your Mindless Eating Habits

Whether it’s downing lunch at your desk, regularly making Netflix your dinner date or just looking down to find yourself holding an empty bag of potato chips, mindless eating is a problem for many of us. Here’s how you can finally get more focused on your food. 

If you’ve ever polished off an entire box of cheese crackers without warning or found yourself at the bottom of a tub of healthy ice cream but can’t quite remember how you got there, you’re not alone. “I hear from a lot of clients that they drink a glass of wine at night or eat a bowl of chips while watching TV, but they are trying to lose weight or manage their cholesterol or diabetes,” says Adrienne Ngai, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Vancouver. “I ask them why [they made those food choices] and they say ‘It’s just part of my routine – it’s what I do.’ They’re mindlessly eating because they’re so used to the habit.”

In our culture of scrolling screens and nonstop schedules, it’s easy to forget to make time just for food. Thinking through breakfast, lunch and dinner, making our meals nutritious and eating consciously – taking in the smells, flavours and textures, as well as the company – can often seem like too big of a task. But as a result, we’re overeating, consuming too much of the wrong foods and missing out on the joys of eating. Luckily, more mindful eating doesn’t have to be difficult, and the rewards are well worth it. Here’s how you can learn to eat with intention.

1. Unplug at Dinnertime

If you’re prone to mindless eating, you need to stop serving your meals with a side of screen time. Studies show that we tend to consume as much as 25 percent more calories when we’re dining with a smartphone, tablet or TV screen. According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, distracted diners tend to not only eat more when they sit down to Netflix and supper (compared to those who don’t eat in front of a screen) but also eat more later on in the day or evening.

It’s nearly impossible to focus on your food when you’re staring at a screen, says Ngai. Step away from your computer, put down your  phone and retire the concept of TV dinners. Instead, sit with a colleague to eat lunch whenever you can and align dinnertime with your family and friends as often as possible. “Eating together helps you be more mindful and present as well,” says Ngai. When you’re alone, allow yourself to simply zero in on what’s on your plate. You’ll be less prone to overeating and enjoy your food more if you give your meals more attention, she says.

2. Beware the Health Halo

There’s a danger of going overboard on (so-called) healthy packaged foods if we stop being mindful of what’s in them and if we really need them. “We don’t want to categorize food as good or bad,” says Ngai. Keto-approved bars don’t need to be downed on the daily just because they fit in with your diet and are easy to eat on the go. Ditto for bottled vegan smoothies and hemp cookies. In general, grab-and-go snacks and meals aren’t necessarily the most nutritious options, and they certainly shouldn’t be eaten mindlessly simply because they fit in with your diet.

3. Pause Mid-Meal

It’s important to be really aware of your food when you’re eating it. Halfway through breakfast, stop to ask yourself if you’re still hungry or if you’re beginning to feel full. At lunch, take a moment to pause and check in with yourself: Are you enjoying your food, tasting the flavours and savouring the textures in your mouth? During dinner, take a breather to consider if you’re continuing to pick at your plate because the fish tacos are that good or because your lunch date is still eating.

Social cues can override satiation cues, especially in a restaurant setting. Health psychologists call it “social facilitation,” and many studies have shown that we order more, eat more and spend longer at the table when we’re in good company. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we’re consciously embracing our communal feast, not walking away from the table feeling bloated and bewildered.

4. Identify Hidden Hungers (That Aren’t for Food)

It’s easy to zone out with a coffee or even while standing at the kitchen counter stirring the Instant Pot. Food – whether you’re cooking or consuming it – can become a distraction from the stress and seemingly unending to-do list of the day. But if you find yourself at the bottom of a chip bag and can’t account for your time – or the chips – you may have a problem. (Psst: See how often you should eat to lose weight.)

It’s possible that it’s distraction itself that you’re craving, says Ngai. If you find yourself noshing but admit that you’re not really hungry, begin by asking yourself some key questions, like “Am I bored?” or “Is this helping me mask an uncomfortable feeling?” or “Am I avoiding something stressful?” Once you know what can lead you to a mindless-eating bender, you’ll be better able to curb the impulse next time.

5. Fire Your Nine-to-Five Snack Habit

Research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that office workers consume nearly 1,300 extra calories a week from snacks and beverages lingering around their workspaces. (Aside from not snacking strategically, see other ways you may be sabotaging your weight loss.) Those catered meetings, bake sales and coffee breaks can really add up without you even noticing. But communal fridges and hallway vending machines are only part of the problem when it comes to sneaky workday snacking.

We often need a coffee break as a way to decompress from an intense project or a tough call with a client but don’t actually need the accompanying muffin. Like a lot of mindless eating, it’s pure habit. “You may need a pick-me-up, but do you really need – or even want – the snack that goes with it?” says Ngai. Instead, go for a stroll or step away from your desk for meditation or breathing exercises.

6. Slow Down

The French truly are right when it comes to their notoriously long lunches. Taking the time to pace out a meal is enjoyable but also important for your body’s natural appetite cues. “If we eat too quickly, we don’t know when we’re actually satisfied with our meal,” says Ngai. That’s because it takes about 20 minutes for fullness signals to reach the brain from the stomach, she says. This makes it all too easy to snarf down more food than you need if you’re noshing in a hurry. Plus, if your body doesn’t get the chance to register that satiation cue, you’re more likely to eat again sooner. In fact, research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows that slow eaters tend to feel fuller when munching on less and even rate their meals as more satisfying.

Paying more attention to the rhythm of your meals by stopping to talk with your date or your kids more often or holding a delicious morsel in your mouth for an extra moment will help you eat more mindfully and make your meals more enjoyable. Bon appétit!

Next. see how healthy food portions actually look.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada