Note: I was introduced to a lot of this material through Brian Wansink’s fantastic book “Mindless Eating.” This post includes information from that book, mixed with other psychology and explained through my personal experience. I highly recommend the book if you want to learn more (or you can check out http://mindlesseating.org/)
Imagine if you could eat or drink anything – from the most decadent chocolate cake to your favorite imperial stout – and still own a body you’re proud of.
The truth is, you can.
I’m not going to claim that the quality of what you put in your body doesn’t matter, because it does. But for weight loss (or gain), how much food you eat matters way more than what you are eating.
With that in mind, there’s no reason you need to give up any specific food – as long as you can control how much you’re consuming.
That said, you do need to think about what you’re eating. It doesn’t matter how consistent you are with your exercise – you can’t out exercise a bad diet.
See if some of these sound familiar:
- I feel satisfied after having a cookie, but for some reason I always go back for more
- I’m tired and hungry after work, so I snack while I wait for dinner to be ready
- I tell myself that I’ll eat out “just this once”
- I want to have a piece of cake “every now and then” – but “every now and then” is more often than I’d like
- I get grumpy and have a headache when I don’t eat
- I’m super skinny and can’t gain weight no matter what I eat
- I want to gain weight, but I feel like I’ll explode if I keep eating
Understanding the psychology behind your eating can help you manage your portions and ensure that you eat on YOUR terms – so that you don’t look back in disgust and think “why did I do that?”
Let me ask you a question:
Chances are you’ll leave something out, even if you’re generally very health conscious. It’s easy to forget the tiny snacks you eat while distracted. Grabbing some french fries from a friend or snagging a free sample at Trader Joe’s doesn’t register as a meal, so we forget it.
Even if you can remember everything you eat, you probably misjudge how much you eat. Research tells us again and again that we are terrible at remembering how much food we eat. Worse, we vehemently deny that our eating is affected by our environment.
In truth, our environment has a massive effect on our food intake. Understanding the factors that influence us means we can make them work for us. If we eat mindlessly, we can also mindlessly eat better.
What about calorie counting, or other methods of painstakingly tracking what we eat?
If you can stick to a specific diet with a caloric deficit (or surplus!), that’s fantastic. It will work eventually, especially if you also start working out. But a lot of people fail at counting calories because it takes effort, because it sometimes means depriving yourself, and because it means worrying about what you eat at all times.
That might work for you, but it might not. Even if you count calories, understanding your eating habits makes it easier to stick to the program and hit your daily targets.
This guide is split into two parts.
Part One covers the common elements of our environment that cause us to over or undereat. You’ll learn why you don’t just eat when you’re hungry, and begin to identify the deeply ingrained food habits that govern your behavior.
Part Two tackles the most common eating struggles we face as mindless eaters. You’ll learn how to control portion size, how to control snacking, how to eat out less, and what to do when you eat out.
Table of Contents
- Part 1: You don’t just eat when you’re hungry
- Part 2: Ways to Control Your Eating
- Ways to Control Portion Size
- Ways to Control Snacking
- Ways to Control Eating Out
Part 1: You don’t just eat when you’re hungry
Over and over, the research shows that we don’t eat because we are hungry. Sure, sometimes that’s the reason – but even when it is, we often wind up eating more or less than we intend to because of the influence of our surroundings.
As an extreme example, one study showed that moviegoers ate popcorn right after lunch time – even when it was stale. It’s also not uncommon for amnesia patients to eat extra meals because they forget that they’ve already eaten.
We eat food because it’s lunchtime, because we’re bored, because we’re tired, because we’re with other people who are eating, or just because it’s there. This section will go over some common eating habits, then take a look at the elements of our environment that affect our eating.
As with many of our everyday behaviors, eating is governed largely by habit. We eat at certain times, when we’re with certain people, and while we do other activities.
These are some of the most common eating tendencies.
Without a doubt, social eating takes the top spot on this list. Social eating combines two powerful persuaders: social influence and distraction.
One of the most common problems people face when losing weight is that it can be isolating. Part of that isolation is because so much of social interaction involves food.
People go out for drinks, grab coffee/lunch, host gatherings, and always, always are surrounded by food. These settings are full of eating influencers.
How do common social scenarios affect eating?
- When you’re invited to a gathering, you eat because you don’t want to disrespect the host
- When coworkers go out for lunch, you don’t want to be excluded because you brought food from home
- When you go out for drinks, it can be uncomfortable to be the only person not drinking
Take the last scenario. As the night continues, one drink turns to two, two turns to three, and three turns into regret.
The same is true of random pastries or appetizers at parties.
As you talk to your friends, you unthinkingly reach for another cookie or piece of cake. Maybe you manage to choose healthier fare but you still eat more than you realize and more than you intend.
Our eating habits are hugely affected by the people around us. If people around us eat poorly, we are less likely to eat well.
The time of day can cause us to eat even if we aren’t really that hungry.
When I started my first 9-5 job after college, I sat down for lunch at noon like everyone else. I would unthinkingly chow down and head back to work at 1, because that’s what people do at lunch time.
In fact, I usually wasn’t hungry at noon. Eating that early meant that I was ravenous by the time 5 came around (and I still had to work out). After a few months of this I realized that I should just eat later in the day, and the problem was solved.
Stories of amnesia patients are particularly telling here. One well-known patient would wake up, make breakfast, go back to bed, and repeat the process again an hour later.
These patients thought it was breakfast time, so they ate breakfast.
A word of caution: time-based eating doesn’t only apply to meal times. Do you always have a snack when you get home, or drink a cup of coffee at 3pm (like I do)? Chances are you do this even on days you aren’t hungry or tired.
Many of us were taught to clear our plates from a young age. Eating all of your food was a good thing, and often led to praise. Not eating your food right away might have meant being hungry or being forced to choke down some icky vegetables (that were cold by the time you had been convinced to give in).
When we were children clean-plate eating was not necessarily a bad thing. Kids don’t always have the best judgement when it comes to food, so it makes some sense for parents to dole out portions (although the parents are still susceptible to normal portion biases, discussed later).
Now though, the tendency to clear your plate can be a dangerous one. Restaurant portions can be enormous and your environment can make you put too much food on your plate.
We don’t want to stop eating until the food is gone, regardless of how much food that is.
How Your Environment Affects Your Eating
Your surroundings affect how much food you eat. This result has come up in study after study after study. However, study after study has also shown that people don’t believe that their environment changes their eating habits.
There are dozens of environmental factors that are relevant, but I want to focus on two:
- Dish size
- Barriers to food
People eat more, and serve themselves more, when eating from larger dishes.
Eating from a larger dish causes you to eat more because the food itself looks less substantial. If you transfer food from a heaping 9-inch plate to a 12-inch plate, it looks like less food. Because it doesn’t seem like that much food, we serve ourselves larger helpings and eat more of those helpings.
Clean-plate eating is also at work here. Most people don’t care if a “serving” is supposed to be 1 cup of food, or 2 or 3. To us, a “serving” is the amount of food on one plate – regardless of how big that plate is.
Dish size is about more than just plates, too. Wider glasses make it appear as though there is less liquid in them (so we pour more). Larger serving spoons lead to giving ourselves more food. Larger eating utensils require less effort to eat from, so we eat more.
Just about everyone is susceptible to these factors. Nutrition experts serve more ice cream into larger bowls and veteran bartenders pour too much into wide glasses.
Being aware of our tendencies is the first step to combatting them.
Barriers to Food
In the same ways that barriers to working out can reduce your consistency in the gym, the introduction or removal of barriers to food can change your eating.
If I want to have a cookie while sitting in my apartment, I have to get dressed, take the elevator down 8 floors, walk at least 2 blocks, and find a convenience/grocery store that sells cookies. If I kept cookies in my apartment I would just have to go to the pantry and chow down.
That’s a relatively extreme example of an eating barrier, but it makes the point. Make it harder to eat food and you’ll reduce overeating. Make it easier to eat and you’ll eat more.
Even small barriers can make a difference.
Ever hear someone say “take this away from me so I stop eating?” If you’ve ever said that, you recognize the value of barriers. With food directly in front of you, it’s easy to keep eating. Once it’s been removed, you realize that you aren’t actually hungry – you were eating because it was there.
If you have a snack jar on your desk, putting it in a drawer (out of sight) will keep your hands out of it more often. Putting it across the room (so you have to get up) is even better. Putting it across the room in a drawer is clearly the best of the three options.
My Experience with Food Barriers
I used to love sitting at my desk with a big bag of chips while watching Netflix and browsing the internet. I would happily munch away at the bag for a while before realizing that I wasn’t really hungry. Then, because the bag was right there, I would reach into it again and eat a bit more.
Eventually I started hiding my snacks behind my laptop. Technically I still knew it was there, but with the snacks out of sight they lost their appeal. Sometimes I would even forget about them and bump the bag with my computer when I got up.
I’ve used this trick in reverse to get myself to drink more water. First, I got a reusable water bottle to use at my desk, reducing the number of times I would have to get up to refill. But even then I found myself not drinking enough.
I kept the water bottle on the floor next to my desk. It was out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Once I realized that, I moved it onto my desk and instantly tripled my water intake (and bathroom breaks!).
Summary of Part 1
You don’t eat just because you’re hungry.
You do, of course, eat because of hunger. But you also eat because of time of day, the people around you, the size of the plate you’re eating from, and because the food is there.
Accepting this reality is the first step to developing tools to counter mindless eating – or to mindlessly eat in ways that better match your goals.
Part 2 will cover specific tactics you can use to mindlessly tailor your eating to your goals.
Part 2: Ways to Control Your Eating
You now know some of the hidden factors that influence your eating. Great! But how can you take advantage of them to eat what you want, when you want, without sacrificing the body you want?
Part 2 covers techniques you can use to limit (or expand) the amount of food that you’re eating.
Remember, what you eat does matter for your overall health, and it can affect the ratio of muscle to fat that you lose or gain. Your weight, however, depends mostly on the amount of food you eat.
The section is divided into 3 main categories, each of which has several tactics you can use right away to control your eating.
- Ways to control portion size
- Ways to control snacking
- Ways to stop eating out – or control how much you eat when you do
Ways to Control Portion Size
I can’t say it enough – portion size is the most important factor when it comes to weight. Once food is on your plate you will probably eat it, so controlling your portions is critical.
Here are 5 ways to control your portion size.
1) Use Smaller Dishes/Utensils (Naturally or Artificially)
As discussed in part 1, using smaller dishes will generally cause you to serve yourself less food and eat less. If you want to lose weight, use smaller plates.
That said, I don’t really expect you to replace your kitchen. If new dishes aren’t in your budget or you don’t have control over your plate size (college cafeteria, mess room, etc.), you can artificially shrink the size of your plate instead.
To artificially shrink your plate, fill up half of it with low-calorie greens before taking any other food. In college, I used to fill up my plate with spinach before going to the other stations. Not only did I get the vegetables I desperately needed, I prevented enormous portions of high-calorie foods.
2) Keep Serving Dishes Away from the Table
If you keep the pot on the table, it’s really easy to grab seconds. Leave your pots on the stove or kitchen counter instead. Introducing even this small barrier prevents mindless overeating.
You now have to explicitly decide to get more food rather than just reaching out and grabbing some. You need to stand up, walk over to the food, serve yourself, and walk back before you can start eating.
Increasing barriers makes second helpings a decision instead of an impulse.
3) Get a New Plate for Each Serving
If you really do want seconds, eat it off a fresh plate. This accomplishes a couple things:
- You have a clear record of how many servings you’ve had (the dirty plates)
- You increase barriers by creating more work for yourself (a new dish to clean)
Having a dirty plate in sight prevents you from chowing down on serving after serving of food. You can, and should, eat until you’re comfortably full. But this will stop you from eating until you burst.
You’ll also eat the minimum amount of food required to be comfortably full, instead of the maximum.
4) Slow Down
It takes around 20 minutes for your body to tell your brain that you’re full. If you eat in less than 20 minutes, you have the capacity to eat a lot more food. Slowing down gives you time to recognize and assess how hungry you are.
I definitely appreciate that it can be difficult to slow down your eating (I’m known as a fast and big eater).
One trick that worked for me is counting chews. If you chew a bite 10 times, you’ll eat slower. I also found myself enjoying food more, as there’s more time to actually taste what I’m eating. Eventually it becomes second nature to chew more.
If you’re in a group, try to be the first person to start eating and the last to stop. Pacing your eating like this will get you to eat more slowly without getting in your head about the specific amount that you eat.
5) Be Mindful (Sometimes)
If mindless eating is the enemy, shouldn’t you try to be more mindful?
I actually don’t think that mindful eating is the best idea (in most circumstances). Making your food intake mindful makes it subject to the whims of willpower – not a good position to be in.
It also means that you have to think about eating a lot, and it’s too easy to zone out while doing something as everyday as having lunch.
However, as you change your eating habits, you may discover that you’ve become more aware of your eating.
I personally have become much better at taking a step back and asking myself if I’m really hungry for more food. If I notice myself eating because food is there, I stop for a few minutes to make sure I actually want to keep eating.
If you want to make that mindful tip more mindless, try portioning out your meals. Move half of your food to one side of your plate. When you finish the first half of your meal, wait 10 minutes before you keep eating.
You’re now armed with 5 tactics to control your portion sizes:
- Use smaller dishes/utensils
- Keep serving dishes away from the table
- Get a new plate for each serving
- Slow down
- Be mindful (sometimes)
Ways to Control Snacking
Snacking is the bane of many healthy lifestyles. Food is there, you’re hungry or bored, and it’s easy to eat.
There’s nothing wrong with snacking – as long as you don’t let it get out of hand. Here are 6 quick ways to control your snacking.
1) Hide Your Snacks
You can’t snack if you don’t have any snacks. The simplest way to stop snacking is to get rid of your snacks and stop buying new ones.
The common advice actually works here. Have a snack-free grocery list when you go to the store and don’t stray from it. Don’t shop hungry. Shop at the perimeter of the store, not the snack-filled center.
If you still want to have snacks and just want to cut back, hide your snacks at the back of your pantry. Make the least healthy snacks hard to get to and the healthier ones easily accessible.
If you’re trying to snack more to gain weight, do the opposite: fill your pantry with easily accessible, high calorie snacks (nuts are a good, high-calorie, healthy option).
2) Never Eat from the Bag
If you eat out of the bag your snacks come in, your brain sees a serving as one bag. You’ll keep happily munching away, until you realize that you’ve eaten far more than you intended.
Instead, get a small plate to put snacks on, put a specific amount of food on the plate, and sit down to eat it at a table. No eating over the sink! Eating only at the table helps you remember what you’ve eaten and prevents mindless indulgence.
If you finish that snack and want more, get a new plate and leave the old one out. The used plates remind you of how much you’ve eaten and help you stop when you’re actually satisfied.
Weight gainers should do the opposite of these things. Mindlessly chew away while watching TV! The hardgainer challenge is eating past the point of hunger, and mindless eating can help you do that.
3) Use a Cookie Counter
Keep a tally of how often you snack (even if you aren’t eating cookies).
Stick this tally somewhere visible, like your fridge. Any time you have a snack, add a tally mark to the count. You can restart the tally at the end of each week.
This works similarly to using fresh plates. The tally ensures that you don’t eat without realizing. It’s ok to snack, but it’s less ok to snack mindlessly. Chances are the number of snacks you have is higher than you think, and keeping track of that number keeps you grounded.
This also works because it’s enormously simple and highly visible. All you have to do is draw a line whenever you eat outside of a meal. If you snack outside of your home, bring your tally with you.
Just keeping your tally will reduce overeating.
4) Swap, Don’t Stop
If you have trouble quitting a snacking habit, make it work for you. It’s a lot easier to swap high calorie foods for low ones than it is to stop snacking altogether.
I don’t typically go through bulking and cutting cycles, but when I’m trying to drop a little weight, I swap out the peanut butter in my oatmeal for PB2. It tastes the same when added to oatmeal, but allows me to mindlessly reduce my calorie intake.
Keep in mind, even healthy snacks can be high calorie – even healthy, low calorie snacks can cause weight gain if you eat enough of them. Chowing down on almonds is probably healthier than potato chips, but it’s still a high calorie option.
If you want to gain weight, those high calorie options could be the way to go. An apple with a lot of peanut butter is both delicious and high calorie – I used it as my main dessert during the years I was gaining weight.
5) Search Your Feelings
In order to cut down on snacking, you need to understand what makes you snack. If it’s hunger, it might make sense to keep snacking (or you could try eating more at meals).
If it’s boredom or fatigue or craving for sweets, you might want to tackle the root cause.
- If you eat when you’re bored at work, can you keep the food away from you to reduce temptation?
- If you eat because you’re tired and hungry while you wait for dinner, can you prep meals in advance to reduce snacking?
- If you crave sweets, can you indulge by using smaller portions?
The final point is key. Depriving yourself of foods you love is hard, so allowing yourself small bits of it is important.
I stopped eating sweets a few years ago, but I still find ways to satisfy my cravings. I’ve made frozen protein cookies (basically chocolate protein powder, oats, and peanut butter) and have learned to do more creative things with fruits and berries.
You can be healthy and lose weight without depriving yourself.
You have 5 key tactics to control snacking:
- Hide your snacks
- Never eat from the bag
- Use a cookie counter
- Swap, don’t stop
- Understand your snacking
Ways to Control Eating Out
Eating out is one of the simple pleasures. You get delicious food in a symphony of different styles, without putting in any effort beyond pulling out your credit card. It can be a social experience, a romantic date, or even a burrito picked up after work and eaten on the couch.
However, it can also take a toll on your weight and wallet. When you eat out, it’s impossible to know exactly how much food you’re eating.
You don’t get to control the plate that you eat off or the environment you’re eating in – and restaurants do everything they can to get you to order more food.
I don’t mean to say that you should never enjoy a night out, but do it on your terms. There are strategies you can use to stop eating out just because you’re tired. There are also tactics to help you eat less during that night out with friends.
Here are 4 ways to stop eating out – or control how much you eat when you do.
1) Meal Prep
I’ve been there – it was a long day at work, you’re hungry, and you don’t want to cook. I used to regularly stop in to the taqueria across the street from my train stop to grab a burrito dinner.
Then I started meal prepping.
The idea is simple: every weekend I cook up a ton of food. Then, during the week, I have leftovers for lunch and dinner.
In my experience, people fight against meal prepping for three reasons:
- They don’t know what to make
- They don’t want to eat the same food for a whole week
- They think food will get less appetizing over the course of the week
But if you think about it, there are ways to overcome all three. If you don’t know what to make, gradually build up your food knowledge. You don’t need a million recipes – you just need to understand cooking in general.
One of my recent go-to’s is stew. You can put basically anything in a stew! Once you understand the concept (put stuff in a pot and let it boil), you can experiment to find your favorite combinations. The same is true of baked foods (is making baked chicken breast and stuffed peppers really that different?), salads, and any number of other food categories.
If you don’t want to eat the same food all the time, prep two meals! I eat oatmeal every morning for breakfast and then different prepped meals for lunch and dinner. I’ve made pork carnitas, southwest chicken stew, chicken salad in an orange vinaigrette, and even simple mac n cheese. The possibilities are endless.
2) Get Better at Cooking
This goes closely with point one. If your food is close to restaurant quality, you’re less likely to eat out.
How can you get better at cooking? As stated above, gradually learn recipes and food styles.
Beyond that, learn to use spices.
Not only are spices healthy (once being used to preserve meats), they taste amazing. There are dozens of spices, but learning which ones go together isn’t that hard.
Here’s an example list of spices by style (some are not necessarily the most authentic, but are easier to find and still delicious):
If you ever have doubts about which spices go well together, just try them! The worst thing that could happen is one sub-par meal.
One great way to experiment with spices is by mixing them with a relatively flavorless food. Scrambled eggs or white rice can both work. Try new spice combinations until you discover what you like.
Before long, cooking goes from a chore to an opportunity to experiment and discover new flavors.
3) Track the Cost of Eating Out
Just like with the cookie counter, tracking your spend on take-out can help you realize how much you do it. Even if you don’t religiously track your spending, keep a tally of the number of times you eat out.
If you’re one of those people that loves budgeting, you probably already do this. If you’re like me and you just want to enjoy yourself within your means, try instead comparing the cost of eating out with things that you love.
From my experience, even with cheap meals:
- One meal at a restaurant is equal to at least one book
- Two meals at a restaurant is equal to seeing an IMAX 3D movie in theaters (with popcorn)
- Three meals is the difference between my good gym membership and the sucky gym I used to go to
- Seven meals is the cost of a personal training session or a massage
Keeping spending in perspective helped me realize that, yes, I could afford to eat out, but that eating out too much would cost me – I wouldn’t be able to do other things I enjoy.
4) Portion Control
Let’s be real – you’re still going to eat out sometimes. When you do, have a strategy in place to control your portions.
The simplest way to control your portion is by dividing it up before you start eating. Ask for a box at the beginning of the meal and immediately pack up half your food. If you’re still hungry when you’re finished eating you can dip into those reserves. Otherwise, you have another meal for later!
Also keep eating speed in mind (as discussed earlier). If eating with others, be the first person to start eating and the last to finish, so that your body has time to tell you it’s full.
That’s 4 tactics to manage eating out.
- Meal prep
- Get better at cooking
- Track the cost of eating out
- Portion control
Food is central to your fitness goals, no matter what they are.
Unfortunately, hunger is not a good way to regulate your eating. We are too susceptible to our surroundings to rely on internal cues.
Fortunately, there are tactics we can use to make eating less mindless – or even better, make mindless eating work for us.
What about you? Why do you eat when you aren’t hungry?