My friend Michele Connolly, who runs the Get Organised Wizard website, said on Twitter or X the other day: "Did I really eat that entire 200 gram bag of cheese-and-onion-chips during Grey's (Grey's Anatomy TV show)?" I half-jokingly tweeted back: That's mindless eating for you!
It struck me that her don't-remember-what-I-ate consumption of a whole pack of chips while engrossed in an interesting show is the perfect example of mindless eating. Distracted by watching TV or a movie, we mindlessly fill our mouths, short-circuiting our fullness signals. We keep on eating unaware of the huge amounts we're putting away. In my opinion this is an oft-overlooked cause of obesity.
The modern food supply encourages a grazing mentality via fast food drive-ins, vending machines full of snacky-junk food and confectionery counters at every retail outlet. What's more it actually encourages us to eat while doing other tasks.
"Multi-tasking" has long been a business buzz word but is often just a euphemism for eating while doing other things. Whether it's popcorn at the cinema, desktop dining while you work, dashboard dining as you drive or dinner in front of the TV, it all leads us to eat more than we need.
The author of the book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam Books), says most of us overeat because we are distracted or are surrounded by junk food served in large portion sizes. We eat as if it's our mission to finish everything!
In one famous experiment, his team of researchers offered a free bucket of popcorn to moviegoers in return for answering a few (dummy) questions about the movie once it was over.
Half the moviegoers got a medium-size bucket weighing 120 g or 4.2 oz, while the other half were given the large-size, bigger-than-your-head, bucket weighing 235 g or 8.4oz.
Weighing the leftovers in the buckets after the movie, the researchers reported that the big-bucket group ate 53 per cent more popcorn (an average of 725 more kilojoules or 175 calories) while mindlessly munching. That's roughly the equivalent of 21 more dips into the bucket.
He repeated the experiment with stale, 14 day-old, popcorn and got similar results. After the movie, the researchers asked the moviegoers to describe the popcorn and they weighed how much popcorn was left in the containers.
Even though they described the popcorn as "stale" and "terrible", moviegoers with the larger containers still ate 34 per cent more than those given the medium-sized containers.
To help yourself learn to eat with awareness, try these simple first steps to practice eating mindfully and prevent mindless consumption.
Your goal is to be conscious of how you're eating and what your stomach registers. When you're in touch with what is going on inside, you'll know the exact moment you are physically satisfied rather than over full or stuffed. It's the best technique for weight control and works regardless of what sort of diet you're on. I follow these steps every day and highly recommend this way of eating!
1. Sit down to eat, even if it's only for a snack. Turn the TV or laptop off and don't read. Let the food be the sole centre of your attention.
2. Take two deep breaths before you eat. Pause to reflect on what you're about to eat, being respectful of the dish in front of you and thankful for the food (a little like the old school-time grace). This is the best step of the six to practice when eating out or with others.
3. Chew each mouthful thoughtfully paying attention to the flavours and textures - some health food advocates have suggested at least 30 times per mouthful * but I personally think 10 times is plenty. It will still work. Put your knife and fork down between bites.
4. Slow things down. If you know you're a fast eater, try eating with chopsticks or with your non-dominant hand to slow things down.
5. Make serve sizes realistic. Plate up normal (not diet) portions of food.
6. Eat slowly and make the meal last at least 15 minutes.
Obviously you can't eat like this for every meal, every day but it's very useful to practice on a quiet weekend or when you're on your own. Use my Hunger and Fullness Log to help you.
* Horace Fletcher (1849-1919) was an American health-food faddist of the Victorian era, who used to make his patients chew their food 32 times before they swallowed. He was given the nickname "The Great Masticator" and was famous for saying: "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate." Fletcher argued that his mastication method would increase the amount of strength a person could have while actually decreasing the amount of food that they consumed. His chewing technique became known as "Fletcherizing" and he claimed it would turn "a pitiable glutton into an intelligent epicurean." He also advised against eating before being "Good and Hungry", or while angry or sad - strong emotions that can interfere with digestion and leave you with digestive upsets such as gas, bloating and bowel irregularities.