Mindless eating is that eating that happens without paying attention – when you finish the basket of tortilla chips without even realizing it, or keep returning to the kitchen on autopilot to trim off one more slice of brownie, or finish your huge restaurant serving just because it’s there. It usually feels out of control, leaves you feeling self-defeated, and (this is a big one), when you eat mindlessly, you don’t even get to enjoy the food that you eat. Mindless eating is a big waste of time, energy, and calories. It’s also a big cause of overeating and weight gain. “How do I stop mindless eating?” is a question I’m frequently asked, so, here it is:
5 Steps to Stop Mindless Eating:
1. Start with compassion (stop beating yourself up).
Mindless eating is an incredibly frustrating pattern and it’s common to react to it by getting angry with yourself. This only makes things worse. Self-blame and frustration shut down your capacity to really pay attention to what’s going on. You will be far more successful if you build a new habit: when you catch yourself mindlessly eating, stop, take a deep breath, and pay attention to what’s going on. Recognize that you broke through the mindlessness (even if it is after the fact), and that you are working to do things differently. Your awareness will grow each time you do this.
2. Target one situation at a time.
We love the idea of big changes don’t we? The problem is, the process of making big changes can be overwhelming, and often, not sustainable. This is especially true if your mindless eating is a coping mechanism. Maybe your mindless eating is a way to zone out or avoid stress, or a painful feeling. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Pick one situation, one time of day, one meal, setting, etc. where you would like to focus on transforming your mindless eating.
3. Make a list of everything you know that contributes to mindless eating in the situation you selected.
For instance, maybe you are eating at your desk and focused on the work that you are doing, or the TV is on during dinner. Perhaps there is a part of you that craves the mindless eating experience. It could be an opportunity to zone out or put off something difficult. Maybe it feels good not to have to think about what you are putting in your mouth all the time. If you can’t think of anything to write down, don’t worry. Keep the question in mind, and move on to the next step.
4. Make a list of possible ways you could be one inch more mindful of your eating in your target situation.
One inch. Notice that I’m not suggesting you become instantly, one hundred percent present and mindful. One inch means that you are setting the goal of being more effective than you were yesterday. Maybe you decide to count out six chips from the basket of tortilla chips and place them on a napkin in front of you instead of eating from the basket, or you decide to eat lunch without multitasking, or stop halfway through your meal and ask yourself if you are still hungry. These are just a few strategies. Experiment and try what you think might work for you. Your goal is to find strategies that will help you be more present and aware.
Here are some basic strategies that help stop mindless eating:
- Pause before eating and state your intention to eat mindfully and with awareness (see #5, below)
- Portion out your food in advance, instead of serving yourself at the table, snacking from a container, or snacking on little “slivers” or pieces of something.
- Whenever possible, give eating your sole attention. Focus on what you are doing and allow yourself to fully taste or savor your food.
- When you know in advance that your attention will be divided (like a social event), set a policy in advance about how and how much you want to eat. For instance, you might decide you won’t eat bread if it’s served with the meal or you might decide to choose only two appetizers from the buffet. Maybe you’ll put your fork down and pause after every two bites. Making a decision in advance gives you a structure to follow and this reduces the chances of drifting into autopilot, or mindless eating.
5. Practice pausing.
Mindless eating is tricky because it is so … mindless. In order to stay in front of it – or catch it quickly – you’ll want to practice pausing and checking in. Before you find yourself in the situation you’ve decided to target, decide on some ways to pause, check in with yourself, and remind yourself of your plan.
Create a pausing ritual. This might be as simple as using the habit of washing your hands before eating to remind yourself of the strategy you are going to try. Some people pause and bless their food or say grace before they eat. This can be a great time to remind yourself, “Today, I will be mindful.” Ground yourself when you reapply your lipstick. Try to connect your pausing ritual to something you already do. Remember, you don’t have to get it perfect! You can pause before you eat and you can use this strategy if you catch yourself in the midst of (or after) a mindless eating episode.
Taking control of mindless eating is a process and the 5 steps to stop mindless eating are meant to be repeated. Each time you do, you’ll learn more about what causes (and complicates) your mindless eating and you’ll gather more information and strategies (and strength) to help you stop it.
Take good care,