By Fabio Comana MS, MA, NASM-CPT, CES, PES
In this mindful eating article, we reveal several simple ideas that can make big differences with weight loss without having to consciously feel deprived of everything you enjoy. Part of this overall strategy will require you to embrace a different mindset – one where our battle against weight gain can be fought on numerous fronts, rather than through the traditional paradigm of food restriction (i.e., a diet) and exercise alone, and that every little victory counts. In other words, although a 10-calorie victory here and a 5-calorie victory there may only total a 100 calories in one day and not appear to be much, recognize that it cam amount to a little over 10 pound in one year.
Recall the age-old adage of “in-sight, in-mind” where we are told that unhealthy foods kept in plain sight can create conscious or sub-conscious desires to indulge? Well, researchers demonstrated this effect by investigating the effects of a bottomless bowl of soup (bowl was continuously refilled without the participants’ knowledge) on caloric consumption (1). They discovered that those eating from the bottomless bowl increased their caloric intake by 73% (consuming 268 calories on average versus 127 calories with the regular bowl), providing some truth to in-sight, in-mind. However, researchers have also discovered that what we see can actually raise our level of consciousness or awareness to how much we eat, and can help reduce our intake. In one chicken wing study, when the bones and empty plates were left in plain sight for people to see how much they ate, they actually consumed 28% less calories (2). Likewise, by pre-plating meals (i.e., bringing all the food you plan to eat to the table rather than making trips for seconds and third helpings) researchers demonstrated an overall reduction in calories eaten by 14% (3). The takeaway message here is that this statement (in-sight, in-mind) is not an absolute truth. Sometimes seeing all you plan to eat or even leaving empties in plain sight may help reduce the amount of food you consume.
We also subscribe to the practice of emptying our refrigerators and cabinets of junk food to avoid those same temptations and weaknesses (i.e., “out of sight, out of mind”). Again, this phenomenon was clearly demonstrated in a study investigating eating behaviors of individuals eating chocolates stored in clear versus concealed jars. Those eating chocolates stored in the clear jars consumed 71% more calories (77 more calories per day), which is the equivalent to 8 pounds in a year (4). In a similar fashion, the practice of purchasing food in bulk, given the perception of monetary value associated with larger containers can also be problematic. When eating out of larger packages, individuals generally increase their consumption by 22% (5). Interestingly, these larger containers not only increase eating initially (i.e., first 7 days), but that food quickly becomes a castaway in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry until discarded, potentially decreasing the true value of those larger packages. The takeaway here is that if buying in bulk, repackage the food into smaller, non-see through containers and then store all but the one container you plan to eat from out of sight. Even a small strategy such as placing a lid on a container or covering it with foil to reduce its visibility or accessibility can curb mindless munching. This same mindset also applies to restaurant trips where you could ask the wait staff to withhold bread and other items until your meal arrives.
Another popular tip we read is to pace ourselves when eating. This idea stems from the fact that it can take up to 20-minutes after you start eating for our satiation signal (feeling of fullness), controlled by hormones like leptin and cholecystokinin, to reach our brain and shut off our desire for food (6). However, considering how a fast food meal is normally eaten within 11 minutes, we can still inflict significant caloric damage and overeat. As a general rule, slow down and enjoy the food you eat. Take the time to adequately chew your food and enjoy the flavors your meal has to offer while enabling your digestive system to play catch-up.
Social Eating Strategies
Eating is a social behavior, and many of us gather with friends to share a meal. We don’t always have to restrict ourselves of that pleasure if we are just more conscious of what can happen in such situations. Many of our eating behaviors are influenced and dictated by others (e.g., a friend who starts eating first or makes menu recommendations), consider the following (7):
- Consider sitting with the slowest eater in your group to consciously slow down how much you consume.
- Be aware of your group’s pacesetter – this is the individual who unknowingly set standards for what, how much, and how fast we eat (e.g., think of the person who always orders the bread, the extra chips, or recommends appetizers).
- The volume of food we eat is believed to be more influential on how much we eat than the actual caloric quantity of the food (8). Lower-density foods that occupy larger volumes (e.g., vegetables, 100% whole grains, lean protein) are more influential on controlling overall intake than higher-density foods (e.g., white bread, liquids). Devise a strategy to sequence your eating order (if possible) or the delivery of foods to your table. In other words, opt for foods that are filling versus empty-calorie foods and drinks.
- Be careful of liquid calories as they do empty from your stomach more quickly than solid foods and generally result in more calories being consumed. A simple guide to consider:
- Thin drinks (e.g., juice, soda) and calorically less-dense foods (e.g., vegetables) equal approximately 10 – 15 calories per ounce or mouthful.
- Thick drinks (e.g., shakes) and calorically dense foods (e.g., white bread, cookies) equal approximately 20 – 25 calories per ounce or mouthful.
Make Convenient Foods Inconvenient
Another effective strategy involves the practice of making convenient foods inconvenient (i.e., making these foods more of a hassle than a habit). The idea is to create ‘pause points’ that require individuals to make a conscious decision to physically get up to access food, thereby giving them time to pause and contemplate the consequences of eating that food (i.e., consciousness raising). One study examined mindless eating with chocolates placed on a desk corner, in a drawer, and on top of a file cabinet 6 feet away (9). Results demonstrated that on average, 9 pieces were eaten at the desk, 6 eaten from the drawer and only 4 were eaten when the chocolates were placed on top of the cabinet, demonstrating the efficacy of pause points. In another study using Pringles® chips and comparing stacks of plain chips against stacks with a red chip inserted every 7th or 14th chip, those eating from the plain stack consumed 23 chips; those eating from the stack with a red chip at every 14th chip ate 15 chips, while those eating from the stack with a red chip placed at every 7th chip only ate 10 chips (10). This also demonstrated that effect of a conscious pause point to think about how much they were eating. The takeaways here are that we need to find opportunities to move foods out of reach and develop pause points for consciousness raising to control mindless eating impulses. However, part of this consciousness raising includes awareness to the consequences once a decision is made. We all exercise some willpower to control cravings in the absence of hunger, but unfortunately willpower sometimes does wane. This leaves us in a state of turmoil fighting the conflict between thoughts and feelings (e.g., desiring sweets, yet restricting ourselves from indulging). Continuing to deny ourselves of something we desire only evokes what is termed psychological reactance (11) – when we keep denying ourselves choices, we ultimately lose this willpower to fight and give into urges and temptations.
Why not rather adopt a strategy of “control-and-concede” to avoid this internal conflict and the guilt, disappointment and frustration that often follows?
- Step One: Consciously learn to recognize triggers to unhealthy eating– become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and triggers that stimulate appetite and cravings. As mentioned previously, log or record events (thoughts, locations, people, etc.) when these cravings appear and evaluate these logs for consistent threads.
- Step Two: Thoughts and emotions are generally intense, but short-lived, therefore strategize a distraction to replace or reduce that desire for food. For example, when a craving occurs, calling a friend to vent, expressing thoughts in a journal, playing with a pet, or doing an activity for a few minutes can help curb the strength of that stimulus.
- Step Three: If desire still persists after implementing the distractor, then be prepared to make a small concession or a trade-off, but always be cognizant of the consequences. Give yourself the autonomy to choose, but always make informed decisions. Using walking as an example for satisfying a craving, consider the following:
- For an average-sized woman, one calorie is equivalent to walking 20 steps, and one minute of walking expends about 4½ calories.
- For an average-sized man, one calorie is equivalent to walking 17 steps and one minute of walking expends about 5 calories.
- Therefore, if you desire a 100-calorie snack and your distractor failed to diminish your desire for a snack, then be prepared to make a concession, but evaluate your capacity to find the time to payback those calories (e.g., 20 – 23 minutes of walking). Having this information allows us to make more informed decisions.
Controlling the Number of Food Choices
Controlling the number of food choices we have is another effective strategy because when we have less choices, we actually develop a perception of less enjoyment from the food and tend to eat less. Increased choices and colors on the other hand enhance the effect of greater enjoyment that leads to increased consumption of calories. In an M&Ms® study that compared 7 colors versus 10 colors, those with more choices ate 43 more M&Ms® (99 v. 56), although every color tastes the same (12). Likewise, in a Jelly Beans® study comparing mixed colors versus one color, those eating the candies from mixed bowls ate 92% more jelly beans than those eating from bowls where the colors were separated (4). The takeaway here is to control the number of food choices and colors, which may subconsciously develop a greater perception of less enjoyment from the food. This strategy may be particularly beneficial if consuming candy and junk food.
In closing, although various ideas have been shared and hopefully merit consideration, we would like to leave you with one last challenge to undertake. Identify what you consider to be your dietary danger zone(s) – these periods or places where you find the urge to overeat most challenging. Where/when does it occur – while working at your desk, driving, going out for dinner or attending a social function? Set one healthy challenge to try, just once, the next time you find yourself in this situation. For example:
- If going out to dinner, try the rule of 2 challenge – you can only chose two from the choice of drink, appetizer or dessert.
- If you find yourself overeating at a social function, set down your plate and/or drink once it if half consumed, then move away from it (out-of-sight).
- If you always clean your plate, try a smaller plate or leave empties in plain sight.
- If you snack constantly, make junk food less accessible by moving it more than 6 feet away, and concealing it out of plain view.
Tackle this challenge once, then evaluate your experience, ability and confidence in repeating this challenge. Try it for a finite period next (e.g., next week), then evaluate again and continue building this process until you can do it indefinitely (i.e., formulating a healthy habit). Before you know it, each of these little victories will lead you down the path to winning your weight loss battle.
- Wansink, B, Painter, JE, & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity Research, 13(1): 93-100.
- Wansink, B & Payne, CR. (2007). Counting bones: environmental cues that decrease food intake. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 104; 273-277.
- Wansink, B., & Payne, CR. (2008). Eating behavior and obesity at Chinese buffets. Obesity, 16(8): 1957-960.
- Wansink, B. (2006). Mindless Eating – Why we eat more than we think. New York, NY: Bantam-Dell Books.
- Wansink, B, Brasel, AS, & Amjad, S. (2000). The mystery of the cabinet castaway: why we buy products we never use. Journal of Family and Consumer Science, 92(1): 104-108.
- Fried, SK, Ricci, MR, Russell, CD, & Laferre, B. (2000) Regulation of leptin production in humans. Journal of Nutrition, 130(12): 3127S-3131S.
- Herman, CP, Roth, DA, & Polivy. (2003). Effects of the presence of others on food intake: A normative interpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 129 (6), 873-886.
- Rolls, B. & Hermann, M. (2012). The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, simple, science-based strategies for losing weight and keeping it off. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
- Wansink, B, Painter, JE, & Lee, Y-K. (2006). The office candy dish: proximity’s influence on estimated and actual candy consumption. International Journal of Obesity, 30(5): 871-875.
- Geier, A, Wansink, B, & Rozin, P. (2012). Red potato chips: segmentation cues can substantially decrease food intake. Health Psychology, 31(3): 398-401.
- Brehm, SS, & Brehm, JW. (1981). Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.
- Kahn, BE & Wansink, B. (2004). The Influence of assortment structure on perceived variety and consumption quantities. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(4): 519-533.