As we approach yet another holiday, many of us will be engaging in more mindless eating — eating simply because food is put in front of us, or we feel like it would be rude if we didn’t eat something. And while indeed eating can be part of a social activity or tradition, that doesn’t mean you need to check your common sense at the door.
Last year, researcher Dr. Brian Wansink published a book entitled, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think which isn’t a diet book so much as a book that explains why we approach food the way we do (through engaging descriptions of interesting studies), and what we can do about it. Dr. Wansink is the director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and brings his years of research experience to bear on helping us reduce our poor eating habits.
One of the core components of mindful eating is simply becoming more aware of the simple activity of eating itself. We so often eat while doing other things — watching TV, socializing, reading a book — that we aren’t paying much attention to our actual consumption. Which is a big part of the problem, since if we don’t know how much we’re eating, we can’t reasonably expect to cut back. Here are five tips of Dr. Wansink’s to help you become a more mindful eater:
1. You’re eating more than you think.
Most people greatly underestimate how much food, and therefore how many calories, they’re actually consuming. Dr. Wansink points out the example of eating at Subway versus McDonald’s. People who eat at Subway think they’re eating healthier (based upon Subway’s marketing), but often add condiments, cheese or other items to their sandwich to make them just as unhealthy as a Big Mac. According to Dr. Wansink, if you double the number of calories you think you’ve eaten, you’ll probably have a number closer to the reality of your actual calorie intake.
2. Eating alone means eating less.
Even though eating is so often a social activity we engage in with our family, friends and coworkers, Dr. Wansink’s research shows that we tend to eat one-third more when with others than when we eat alone. That’s the nature of social activities — we tend to talk more, linger longer, and focus less on the joint activity itself, such as eating.
3. Take what you’re eating out of the bag.
People eat more when they just eat directly from the bag. Whether it’s a bag of cookies, potato chips or candy, according to Dr. Wansink’s research, you’ll double the amount you eat if you just rip that bag open and start gobbling. You can’t really tell how much you’ve eaten if you just keep nibbling away from an endless bag of food. Instead, pour a recommended serving size into a bowl or on a plate, then put the bag away. Eat only what you pour out, and try to resist going back for seconds. (This also works for supersized orders of french fries that you didn’t want but came with the meal — pour out a reasonable portion and throw the rest away.)
4. Presentation matters.
If it makes sense to pour food out of its bag, it also makes sense that what you pour it onto might make a difference into how much you eat. Size matters, and the bigger the plate, the more you’ll eat. Put things on a smaller plate, and your brain resets its expectations of a normal portion size and will eat accordingly (and in most cases, you’ll still feel just as full). That’s why when you go to most American restaurants, they serve food on oversized plates, encouraging you to overeat (and feel stuffed). Even if you don’t normally eat so much food, the bigger plate signals this is the “normal” portion size for this meal and you may feel guilty if you leave something on the plate (or need a doggy bag).
5. Keep reminders of how much you’ve eaten or drunk.
In some situations, we’re presented with the opportunity to engage in “endless eating” (or drinking). Parties, buffets, banquets, or just hanging out can put us in a situation where we could eat as much as we want — and even more than we mean to. But there’s a simple trick to keeping track of how much you’re eating or drinking in such situations.
Dr. Wansink found that when waitresses would clear the bones from eaten buffalo wings from a table, the table ate more than when the bones were left on the table. The bones reminded people how much they’ve already eaten, helping them to keep to reasonable portions (rather than partaking of “endless eating” behavior). So don’t let a waitress clear your plate if you want to be “done.” And if you’re drinking at a party, you can keep track of the number of drinks you’ve had by keeping bottle caps in your pocket, or the little paper umbrellas (or toothpicks) common to a cocktail.
One last tip — don’t eat just because food is left out in front of you. Just because a plate of cookies is sitting on the counter isn’t an invitation to gobble them down while you chit-chat in the kitchen. Feel free to ask to move the plate if the temptation is simply too great (out of sight, out of mind!).
Check out your own mindless eating with the Mindless Eating Meter, and keep up with Dr. Wansink’s efforts at his blog.