Using Mindfulness to Stop Overeating

Updated:Feb 20,2018

woman eating and thinkingResolutions to eat better, shed unwanted pounds and get healthier come and go. But somehow, when the mind is grappling with issues like challenging co-workers, child rearing or tough deadlines, the complimentary tortilla chips, bread basket or office candy bowl sometimes seem to empty themselves.

When it comes to overeating, why does mindlessness sabotage our resolve and what can be done about it?

“Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry,” said Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and the John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University. “We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” Wansink’s team at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab has conducted many studies about why we eat what we eat.

He attributes rising overweight and obesity rates in America to the availability of food, the affordability of food and the attractiveness of food.

“Today, there are more brands, flavors and packaging than ever before,” Wansink says. “We spend about 6 percent of our income today on food, compared to 1960, when we spent 24 percent of our income on food. Today, we can buy a meal at any gas station in the world, which wasn’t the case back then.”

The solution, however, is not to make food less available, affordable or attractive, he says. “The solution is to change your personal environment,” Wansink said. “It’s the one thing you can do tonight.”

Among Wansink’s suggestions:

  1. Smaller plates. Using a 9.5 inch plate vs. 12 inch plate means smaller portions and feeling fuller after eating an entire plate of food. Studies have shown food consumption is 22 percent lower when eating from a smaller plate.
  2. Smaller serving utensils. “Mini-sizing” utensils can reduce the amount of food consumed.
  3. Out of sight, out of mind. Leaving serving bowls and entrees away from the dinner table can prevent second and third servings.
  4. Easy access. Making healthy foods more accessible in cabinets, cupboards and even the refrigerator encourage healthy choices.

Other steps that can gradually shift mindless eating patterns, with long term health benefits:

  • Control portions. Wansink found that people eat much more food when given unlimited quantities. He advises people to eat smaller portion sizes in smaller packages.
  • Eat when you’re hungry. Let actual hunger cues, not emotions, guide your eating. Substitute a quick walk for a snack until actual hunger sets in. But don’t wait until you’re famished and binge on unhealthy foods. Learn more why people eat when they’re not hungry.
  • Plan. Prepare healthy snacks ahead of time to eat throughout the day. A 200-calorie, whole grain, high-fiber snack can satisfy hunger between meals. Fiber keeps people feeling full longer. Learn how a little planning helps the heart and the budget.
  • Keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat and what was happening at the time to identify food triggers – hunger, stress, excitement or boredom. Be careful not to obsess over every calorie. The new American Heart Association diet and lifestyle guidelines acknowledge that overall eating patterns, not occasional indulgences, are what are most important to maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Ready to get started? Keep track of what you eat with our food diary.
  • Slow down. Here’s where mindfulness can really come into play. During each meal, chew slowly, savoring each bite; put your fork down between bites; and stop eating to take a drink of water (not a sugary soda). This gives the body enough time to signal to the brain that it’s satisfied, not stuffed.
  • Pay attention. Don’t eat in front of the TV or computer, while standing at the kitchen counter or talking on the phone. This can lead to losing track of how much you’ve consumed.
  • Use technology. “We can actually use our smartphones and other electronic devices to help us,” said Riska Platt, M.S., a registered dietitian and certified nutritionist for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York and a volunteer with the American Heart Association. “There are now apps that manage food records, count calories, help you track what you eat and even provide guidance on healthy food choices at the grocery store and restaurants.”