Have you ever come to the end of a bowl full of munchies or a plate of food and been surprised that it was all gone? Do you tend to read, watch TV, daydream or do paperwork while eating? If this is a regular occurrence for you, you have probably fallen into the habit of mindless eating.
Mindless eating occurs when eating is accompanied with other activities that occupy part or all of your attention. Foods slide in unappreciated and the calories slide by unnoticed, until the extra pounds become evident. By that time the relationship between eating and other activities is so well established that you automatically feel the need to eat whenever you go to the movies, pick up the paper, or turn on the TV.
By the time most people reach adulthood, they will have already developed a number of triggers or cues that can prompt them to eat, whether they are hungry or not. For example, people whose mothers fed them every time they cried as children may have learned to eat in response to stress, and/or depression. The bedtime snack trigger is another that may be acquired during childhood.
Behaviours that develop later in life may include the beer and potato chips while watching the big game trigger, or the donut with coffee trigger, or the two-martini business lunch trigger. Once these eating cues have been developed, they can quickly lead to weight gain because they override or eliminate the body’s natural cue for eating – hunger.
One way of avoiding the mindless eating trap is to practice a technique called Mindful Eating which stresses that calories are to be tasted, not wasted. It involves eating with total awareness while focusing on all of the sensations of your eating experience, and excluding all else. The result is that meal time becomes an enjoyable and fulfilling event with none of the guilt and dissatisfaction that we often feel. You will have participated fully in the decision-making process and accepted responsibility for your actions, leaving you with a strong feeling of control over your eating.
Using activities to break up patterns of behaviours that lead to inappropriate eating can be a very powerful means of changing eating habits. Activity substitution is a technique that is particularly useful when you are eating in response to environmental cues. These can include the hunger cravings you experience at odd times, for example, after meals, before bed, or when you are out grocery shopping.
The principle behind activity substitution is quite simple. Behaviours occur in chains, and are onset by stimuli. The completed behaviour, whether good or bad, is at one end of a chain of responses. As you work backwards from the terminal behaviours, you can recognise events or cues in your environment that started the chain of events that led to the behaviour such as eating, or overeating.
If the stimulus/response chain is broken or changed at any point, the final behaviour is less likely to occur. The sooner you identify the starting behaviour that has been shown to cause the end behaviour, the easier it is to intervene. However, the further down the chain you get before you identify what you are doing, the less likely it will be to stop the motion, for example, if you don’t identify the chain until you have opened the refrigerator door, it may be too late.
Sound familiar? An intervention can be very simple. Once the behavioural chain has been identified, it is only a matter of selecting an alternative set of steps that will alter the outcome.
If you recognise that lying down on the couch always leads to eating after you are full from dinner, or you recognise that you scoff down a junky snack immediately upon arriving home from work, or that every time you go to get gas you by a soda, then the good news is you can use behavioural modification to change this chain of behaviours. After dinner- don’t watch the television, instead do a short exercise session, or read a book to keep your attention and break the chain. After work eat an apple on the way home or have a planned healthy snack as you come through the door. At the gas station pay at the pump or carry only enough money to pay for the gas you order.
The decision to make a change in your lifestyle is most likely to succeed when the circumstances around the old behaviour are analyzed and understood. Find an area in your lifestyle that you wish to change: weight, overeating, evening eating, missing breakfast, or soda drinking. Analyse that action: Where, when, how, why, what and who. Then decide on your plan of attack, and execute. Even a ten percent change can result in a hundred percent improvement, and put you back in control.
Tara Godfrey is a Nutritional Counsellor with the Canadian Society of Nutrition Management.