69% of adults are either overweight or obese. With the wealth of information circulating on the Internet it’s interesting that we have such a high rate of people with poor health.
This just goes to show that while we live in a society that is obsessed with looks and health—the method of delivery is wrong.
We have a tendency to focus on macros, diet plans, meal timing, stoking the metabolism, and other nutritional metrics. Those are insignificant compared to the large elephant standing in the room laughing as we parade around trying any and everything to level our fitness up.
The large elephant isn’t the sexiest in the room. It’s not trendy, but it’s damn essential.
What’s this elephant I’m speaking of.
It’s our food behaviors. Food behaviors operate mostly on a subconscious level.
We know which foods we’re supposed to eat. We know total calories play a pivotal role in building the bodies we want. We know what to do, but aren’t doing it because our minds are playing on another playing field that we haven’t arrived at yet.
While actors (your outside appearance) get all the attention, it’s the filming crew and producers (your mental being) who ultimately pulls the strings and develops a great product (i.e. a body you can be proud of).
This eating without awareness, without focusing, without intent is what we call mindless eating.
What is mindless eating
Mindless eating is when you eat without thinking about what you’re doing. You’re essentially playing the role of a nutritional zombie.
Mindless eating often occurs through overeating, not because of greed or any other self-centeredness, but because of our environments.
Brian Wansink, author of the interesting book ‘Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think', explains that “we overeat not because of hunger but 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”.
Temptations to fall into mindless eating habits surround us at every corner and turn we make. Let’s look into 6 common scenarios where the potential for food behaviors ruining your fitness is high.
6 common areas where mindless eating can zap your fitness progress
Our minds are programmed from the time were a toddler to behave in specific ways with our foods.
All 6 scenarios below are detrimental to our goals unless we become mindful of them.
1. The size of your plates, bowls, packages, & buckets– As crazy as this might sound, the presentation of the way your food is delivered plays an important role in determining your eating behavior.
Researchers at Cornell University’s Food Brand lab, discovered that people who used larger plates overserved themselves compared to those who elected to use smaller plates, hence undeserving themselves.
People will eat food just because it’s there. We’re instinctively engineered to desire food when it’s placed in front of us. We might have a beating pulse, but inside each of us, lies a little robotness, which allows us to fall prey to programming and losing our minds.
Movie goers in a study conducted by Wansink and his students were given 5 day old popcorn. Many of them, haven’t eaten lunch, were given a soft drink and a medium or large bucket of popcorn to indulge in. Not surprisingly, the large bucket group ate more.
Asked if they ate more due to bucket size, they replied “no”. People didn’t eat because they were hungry, they ate because of the movie distracting us, the sounds of people munching on popcorn, and the general societal expectations of going to the movies and being expected to snack.
2. Your perception of the situation– The stories we create in our heads become manifestations of our realities after a time period of feeding ourselves the same story.
If we’re in a situation where it’s expected we stuff our faces (talking to the ‘all you can eat buffets’)—then we’ll pig out, regardless of whether we’re full after plate 1.
If we’re in a fancy schmancy restaurant on a date, we’re likely to eat with restraint and not pig out because of the expectations.
There was a study conducted on North Dakota & California wine, where the same wine was given out with different labels.
The North Dakota wine consistently rated lower due to the expectations that wine grapes aren’t grown in North Dakota as opposed to them growing in California.(I always wanted to try this on the so called wine connoisseurs.)
3. Your eyes (out of sight, out of mind)- Often times in relationships, we operate with an out of sight, out of mind mentality. We treat food the same way.
If we walk into grandmas house and see a delicious white cake sitting, odds are, we’ll suddenly have the desire to eat white cake.
If you’re at the bar and your waiter hasn’t come to collect your 4 empty bottles, odds are you’ll have more reservations about ordering another drink.
This logic was supported in the famous chicken wing study where a group of individuals were left with the bones in front of them and another group had their bones taken each time.
No surprise here, but the group who had the bones left in front of them ate fewer compared to the group who had their previous plates removed.
4. The middle grounds (aka the land of nowhere)– We’ve all been in a place where things aren’t going bad, yet things aren’t moving forward. You’re moving so slow that it doesn’t feel like you’re moving at all.
In the nutrition world, this can be a dangerous recipe because it allows us to run on autopilot and lose our focus.
Wansink describes this middle ground of drudgery as the “mindless margin—we can slightly overeat or undereat without being aware.”
If you undereat by a sizable margin, you’ll start to feel weak, lethargic, moody, and have crappy training sessions. If you start to overeat by a sizable margin, you’ll start to feel bloated and slow as molasses.
However, in this dangerous middle zone of eating, we aren’t aware of the small differences. A small crack in a dam eventually overflows.
Snacking here and there multiple times a day secretly throws your daily caloric intake off. Months later, you wake up with an extra 10 pounds and outfits aren’t fitting the same.
5. The party don’t stop till the food is gone (aka our all or nothing food mentality)– Party till the sun comes up. Pulling all nighters for school. Celebrating chugging energy drinks to keep working on projects.
Our culture has an extreme personality. More and more isn’t always better. Often times, this attitude comes back to bit us in the rear.
We have to finish everything. Our approach to food isn’t any different (especially here in the southern states).
We’re done eating when our plates are empty. We’re done drinking when our cups are empty.
This mentality is hard to break, especially since it’s been ingrained into our subconscious since we were kids.
Being told that you can’t have dessert till you finish your plate or being called wasteful for not finishing your food has added fuel to the fire for our eating habits.
Instead of eating till we can see our reflections on the plate or eating out of guilt, pull the eating brakes at 80% capacity.
Borrow the Okinawan phrase ‘hara hachi bu’ which is used to indicate to eat until you’re 80% full. Eat until no longer hungry, not full.
6. Societal and lifestyle traps– From parties to movie nights, we allow ourselves to become preoccupied with guests to the point we unknowingly stuff our faces away. Whether it’s snacking obsessively out of nervousness at the corporate office party or snaking due to guilt at grandmas house—be weary of these traps.
How to eat mindfully and enjoy the immense pleasures of food
If you want to build the body you want and transform your health, you must find a way to control your eating behaviors. You can’t out train a diet, no matter how intense your workouts are.
However, using 7 simple lessons from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanhs' book ‘How to Eat (Mindful Essentials)’, we can begin to control our eating behaviors.
1. Eating without thinking– Thich Nhat Hanh states that “Sometimes we eat and we're not aware that we're eating. Our mind isn't there. When our mind isn't present, we look but we don't see, we listen but we don't hear, we eat but we don't know the flavor of the food.”
2. Slowing down– “When we can slow down and really enjoy our food, our life takes on a much deeper quality. I love to sit and eat quietly and enjoy each bite, aware of the presence of my community, aware of all the hard and loving work that has gone into my food. When I eat in this way, not only am I physically nourished, I am also spiritually nourished. The way I eat influences everything else that I do during the day.”- Thich Nhat Hanh
Taking time to enjoy our food is a great way to unwind, express gratitude, and take a much needed break from the hustle & bustles of everyday life.
3. Turning off the tv– “To be truly present you need to not just turn off the television or radio in your house, you need to turn off the conversation and images in your head”-Thich Nhat Hanh
Take a break and disconnect from the world, cell phones included (nothing will happen in those 20min—promise).
4. Preparing a meal- Just as fitness can nourish our bodies and mind. Just as a mesmerizing piece of art can move us physically and mentally. Just as an athlete of remarkable abilities can leave us in awe and disbelief. Food has the ability to provide a deep nourishment for our bodies and mind.
5. Chew your food, not your worries– “Sometimes we eat, but we aren't thinking of our food. We're thinking of the past or the future or mulling over some worry or anxiety again and again. Don't chew your worries, your fear, or your anger. If you chew your planning and your anxiety, it's difficult to feel grateful for each piece of food. Just chew your food.”-Thich Nhat Hanhs
Let go of thinking about work, personal stress, and just take in the moment of enjoying the food.
6. Eating is an art– This isn’t just fancy cooking. Its how you go about your daily nutrition. It's eating well in the moments where most would crumble. “Your body is not just yours”. It is a gift and a responsibility”
7. A full life– One of my favorite quotes by Nhat Hanh states that “If we feel empty, we don't need to go to the refrigerator to take things out to eat. When you eat like that, it's because there is a feeling of emptiness, loneliness, or depression inside.”
Eating to fill emotional voids never solves the underlying issue. Filling your emotional voids by eating places a band-aid over your deep flesh wounds (eventually it’s going to seep through).
Question for you to think about: What are some areas of your life where you fall prey to mindlessly eating? And, what do you plan to do about it?