Why Mindless Eating Can Pack on Pounds

If food is the last thing on your mind when you eat, there could be a weight-gain surprise at the end of the year.

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It seems when Americans sit down to eat, our minds are out to lunch. Whether it's the newspaper on the kitchen table, the morning news on TV, your co-workers you're dining with, or simply the world passing you by, food is the only thing we're not thinking about when we eat. The problem is, our absent-minded way of eating is starting to make a difference when we step on the scale -- and not in a good way.

"Regardless of how tuned in we believe we are to what we eat and how much we eat, we are really a nation of mindless eaters," says Brian Wansink, PhD, professor and director of Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

So if we're not focused on our food, what is it we're thinking about when we sit down for a meal? Do we give any thought at all to what's on our forks, or do we just open up and consume?

Experts give WebMD tips on how we can stop our absent-minded way of eating and start thinking before we open our mouths for a mindless feast.

Mindless Eating

"The average person during the course of an average day makes over 200 food-related decisions," says Wansink, author of Mindless Eating. "But if you ask someone what that number is, they say around 30."

That could mean that many of the choices we should be making regarding the food we eat are made for us when we're seduced by our environment.

"If we simply give people a larger plate size, in some cases, they'll end up eating 25%-50% more food just because the dish they're eating from is bigger," says Wansink. "Whether it's the time of day, who we are with, the lighting, the size of dish, the variety of food- -- all of these things end up influencing us as we make food choices."

While the brain that's between our ears doesn't seem to have a huge role on the food we put between our lips, that doesn't mean it's not having an impact on our waistlines.

"If you look at all the factors that influence your food choices over the course of a day, if you eat 20% more calories than you need because of those factors, then at the end of the year, that's about 40 pounds of extra weight," says Wansink. "So it makes a huge difference at the end of the year, and that's what we call the 'mindless margin' -- we lose and gain weight by a few calories a day."

So if we're not paying attention to our food, what is it we're pondering?

Life vs. Food

"Even when you're eating with others, say at a lunch meeting, it's easy for people to get caught up in the conversation and forget to pay attention to their food," says Linda Spangle, RN, MA, author of Life is Hard, Food is Easy. "Suddenly, they look down and realize their plate is empty, but didn't really notice what they ate."

Life, it seems, gets in the way of food.

"It's very common for people to be so preoccupied with life concerns that they eat without paying much attention to their food," says Spangle.

Instead of food, everything else is on their minds, from kids to relationships to work.

"Many workers multitask by eating at their desks and continuing to do computer work, answer emails, or do other tasks," says Spangle.

They're so focused on their work that the food in front of them magically disappears without a second thought.

"In the evening, many people no longer eat at a table as a family," says Spangle. "Instead, each person grabs their own food, then they head to another room or they plunk down in front of the TV to relax from their day. In this case, TV holds their attention as they mindlessly shove food in their mouths."

And in many cases, Spangle explains, the power of habit goes into overdrive when the mind shifts to neutral.

"Many times it's habit," says Spangle, who also authored 100 Days of Weight Loss. "We're used to eating a certain amount of food at our meals, such as a large sandwich, and we finish it off even when we know we're overeating or becoming too full."

What happened to the joy of eating? Of enjoying a simple meal and relishing every last bite? Have those days gone the way of the family dinner?

"It's not that people don't want to notice and appreciate what they're eating," Spangle tells WebMD. "It's that we've forgotten how to separate eating from all the other activities or demands in our lives."

Focusing on Food

So how do we get our minds back on track and start focusing on food?

"The bad news is that the environment can lead us to mindlessly overeat," says Wansink. "The good news is we can change our environment to eat what we want and eat the quantities we want."