What is it?

As humans there are a huge number of factors that can determine what, when, and why we eat. Mindless eating, also known as “non-hungry eating”, refers to when we are eating for any reason other than actual physical hunger.

Approximately 40-80% of the eating we do is mindless eating and we do this for many reasons such as stress or boredom, environmental triggers such as ‘because it’s there’, social situations, or even just habitual factors like settling in for dessert every night.

It’s important to remember though, that mindless eating is not a sin, it’s actually quite normal!  The problem is that when it occurs in excess it can lead to feelings of discomfort, perpetuating unhealthy eating habits and result in unintended weight gain.

Eating mindfully isn’t about never eating for reasons other than hunger, it’s about putting more thought into eating and remember NO foods are off limits – if you really want some chocolate, then have some!

 

How can I stop it?

Step 1: Recognise hunger versus non-hungry eating

Before you eat, ask yourself if you are really hungry. Is your stomach rumbling, or do you just want to eat for any reason other than hunger? Are you stressed, upset or lonely? It is also a good idea to check-in during your meal too – are you full? Are you continuing to eat because the plate still has food on it?

It is important to learn your body’s hunger signals and the difference between physical and psychological hunger.

Give yourself permission to eat without feeling guilty. Be in tune with your body and once you have decided to eat something (whether because you are hungry or not) ENJOY IT, eat slowly, shew well and savour each mouthful, take note of the smell, texture, and taste. Allow your body to recognise when you are satisfied and then STOP.

DON’T IGNORE HUNGER

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment – conducted during the Vietnam War where men were placed on a calorie restricting diet for six months – gives evidence of the negative effects of dieting – showing that when restricting calories the human body is damaged both physical and psychological health and can lead to increased anxiety and depression and obsessing over food.

Step 2: Identify triggers/reasons for eating

Once you have established that you are not actually physically hungry, you need to identify what triggered you into wanting to eat.  Was it one of the following emotional, environmental, social or habitual triggers?

EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS:

– Stress or Anxiety

– Depression or Loneliness

– Reward

– Boredom

– Tired

– Craving

ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGERS:

– Sight

– Smell

– Place

– Taste

SOCIAL TRIGGERS:

– Celebrations

– Cultural or religion

HABITUAL TRIGGERS:

– Clock eating

– Environment

– Eating patterns (e.g. dessert every night)

– plate cleaners

Step 3: Take control and plan ahead

Sometimes being aware of the trigger or that you are eating mindlessly is enough to stop eating, other times you may need to address the actual emotion/feeling by taking control and/or planning ahead.

EMOTIONS

Comfort eating due to stress, anxiety, depression or loneliness can lead to craving certain foods, whist the food may take the emotion away for a tiny moment whilst you’re eating, longer-term turning to food will not resolve the emotion and can in fact may make it worse with added guilt. Reflect on ways you can improve the emotion rather than eating.

FEELING STRATEGY
Stress or Anxiety Make a list of non-food de-stressors and keep it somewhere handy, such as:- go for a walk to get some fresh air, talk to a psychologist, try deep breathing, switch off social media, take a hot bath, or book in for a massage, yoga, Thai chi or a meditation class
Depression or Loneliness Find a way to remember happy times or loved ones other than food such as: going to their favourite place, look at photos, spend time with loved ones, or join a community/volunteer group to meet new people
Reward Reward yourself with things other than food such as getting a massage, going to the movies or getting  flowers, candles or a magazine instead
Boredom Make a list of activities you enjoy and keep it somewhere visible, such as: paint your nails, start a hobby (e.g. knitting or colouring), read a book, call a friend or walk the dog
Tired – Ensure you are getting adequate sleep at night

– Get up from your desk, grab a drink of water and stretch your legs

– Avoid high sugar snacks for an ‘energy boost’ as this can lead to a dangerous cycle as after the sugar ‘rush’ comes the ‘crash’.

Craving If you have a strong craving for a certain food, particularly a ‘banned’ food, it may be a certain time of the month or just really want that bar of chocolate. By further ignoring your craving and depriving yourself you are only going to want it more and likely crack – and end up overeating. There really is no real non-food strategies for a true craving – give yourself permission to eat and enjoy the food – don’t go overboard and enjoy it!

ENVIRONMENT

Eating something just because it is ‘there’ is something we can all acknowledge. The chocolates sitting on the desk or muffins brought in by a colleague and before you know it you have taken a bite before you have even considered whether or not you are hungry or actually want it. Changing environmental factors isn’t always possible, focusing on being mindful is the main strategy here!

ENVIRONMENT STRATEGY
Sight – When shopping, make a shopping list and stick to it (never go shopping hungry!)

– Put comfort foods on a higher shelf (out of direct eye-sight).

– Keep food out of sight – it’s much easier to avoid temptation if it’s not right in front of you!

Smell or Taste – Have a smaller portion and eat slowly, allow yourself to enjoy the food

– Eat half the portion now and save the rest for later

Place – Have healthy snacks easily available for when you are hungry (e.g. nuts in your bag)

– Avoid the television, social media or other distractions whilst eating, eat slowly and enjoy your food!

SOCIAL

Eating to be social and fit in is a common reason for eating, especially if you are surrounded by ‘feeders’. Showing love through food has taken place for generations and is a tricky one to break!

SITUATION STRATEGY
Celebrations – Have something to eat before leaving home

– Stay away from the food table

– Eat a small portion and take home leftovers

– Politely decline

Cultural or religion – Serve up your own plate (if possible)

– Eat a small portion

Eating out – Request an entree size

– Remember to eat slowly

– Avoid buffet style restaurants

– Catch up with friends in non-eating situations e.g movies, or go for a walk.

HABIT

Breaking habits can be hard! Identifying them and avoiding being on autopilot is the first step. Autopilot eating comes from habits and you may feel like you have no control over the eating decision – whether timing, location or food itself.

HABIT STRATEGY
Clock eating – eating because of the time – It is important to eat regularly as skipping meals can lead to overeating at the next meal

– there are exceptions for this, such as you have an assigned lunch break and know if you become hungry later you may not have the opportunity to take a break.

Dessert every night – Break the habit – if you actually think about it you may not actually feel like it every night.
Plate cleaners – Once you have served your plate, immediately pack the remainder away for leftovers the following day – If you are still hungry, go and serve yourself some more.

– Stop it from continuing to the next generation – don’t make your children clean their plates!

Seek support!

I often have my clients tell me they don’t feel hungry, which can be true, when you ignores your hunger signals for a prolonged period (often the case with restricting or yo-yo dieting) the body can struggle to recognise hunger. Regardless your body is still hungry and needs adequate nutrition.

By speaking to a non-diet dietitian you can learn to re-train your body to recognise and respond appropriately to hunger and fullness cues. Keeping a food and emotions diary can also assist to identify triggers for eating – record what you are eating over the day and more importantly record how you were feeling, where were you, who were you with and how did you feel after – were you stressed? did you feel satisfied or too full? This can assist you to identify your common mindless eating triggers, so you can plan ways to deal with these feelings, without food.

In summary, it is very normal to do some mindless eating, the problem lies when we do it too much and it leads to feeling physically uncomfortable and even leading to unintended weight gain.

– Listen to your body and don’t let yourself get too hungry

– No foods are off limits!

– Eat slowly and enjoy your food

Essentially eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full!

 

Important note: If you have been restricting your food, struggle with low self-esteem, are underweight or have an eating disorder you may struggle to determine the correct type and amount of food you need. It is important to seek help from a health professional (such as a dietitian) for assistance and support.

References:
– Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis ‘ The don’t go hungry diet’
– Dr Rick Kausman ‘If not dieting then what?’
– Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O. & Taylor, H. L. (1945) Experimental Starvation in Man. A Report from the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, University of Minnesota  University of Minnesota Minneapolis, MN.
– Queensland Health – Nutrition Education Materials Online (NEMO) team ‘The Hunger Level Scale’