Weight Control: Mindless Eating and Weight Gain (cont.)

"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."