When I first started writing this blog 3 years ago, I was on a quest to finally solve the mystery of why I have been a yo-yo dieter for my entire adult life and how to get off that merry-go-round once and for all. I had also developed some medical issues that needed to be addressed. In the ensuing months I have learned a lot about myself and what it takes to get and stay healthy and I have tried to pass along some of what I have learned to you so that perhaps you might benefit not only from my successes but from my mistakes as well.
Because I am fighting personal battles with prediabetes and hypertension, the combination of 16:8 intermittent fasting and a low carb way of eating along with DAILY moderate exercise have gotten me healthier at 68 than I was at 40. My current lifestyle is what I call my “secret sauce” that has finally gotten me off the dieting merry-go-round. Regardless of what lifestyle choice gets us to our healthiest selves (it will be different for each of us) there is still one area of behavior that can derail all of our efforts to stay healthy. In a previous entry, I discussed emotional eating specifically but it turns out that it is only one of the many types of behaviors known as mindless eating. I am slowly coming to grips with the reality that I am now and have always have been a mindless eater.
I make this confession because it is an ongoing struggle for me and I know that it is a problem that many of us have without even knowing it. Recently I have been studying the concept of mindfulness as it applies to all areas of our lives. To be mindful is to be fully present and engaged in the moment without dwelling on the past or the future. Even the bible instructs us not to worry about tomorrow for it will take care of itself. Mindfulness is about focus and concentration without distractions. The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. We all have moments of mindlessness. Have you ever been reading a book or an article and had to go back and reread a section because you didn’t know what you just read? Your eyes may have been scanning the page but your mind was somewhere else. In a similar way, when we don’t give our eating our full attention in the moment, we are eating mindlessly and likely to eat beyond what we truly need to eat to stay healthy.
Here are just a few examples of mindless eating::
- Eating anytime you are not “stomach growling'” hungry or continuing to eat beyond fullness
- Standing at the refrigerator or pantry nibbling on whatever is there
- Eating directly from a large container of food
- Eating while watching tv, scrolling social media, reading, or working – this can lead to overeating
- Eating popcorn at the movies or a hotdog at a sporting event out of habit – I call this recreational eating.
- Eating because someone left treats in the break room at work
- Eating because you are sad, angry, lonely, frustrated or tired or because you are happy or celebrating – also known as emotional eating
- Eating in your car
- Eating to satisfy a craving for a specific food even if you are not hungry
The list goes on and on!
When I realized I have done all of these for as long as I can remember, a lightbulb went off in my head. Growing up I was a “latchkey kid.” That means that from the age of 10 through high school, I was home alone between 4 and 11 pm every day. I was not allowed to have company so my friends were the television and food. I ate dinner alone in front of the tv every weekday!! No wonder I became an obese teenager. Studies have shown that eating in front of the tv, or distracted eating, impairs our ability to recognize when we are full and leads to chronic overeating! Even if you are eating healthy foods, the tendency is still to overeat!
There are multiple strategies you can try to help curb mindless eating. It is a learned behavior and with a little effort can be unlearned. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Think before you eat. Ask yourself if the reason you are about to eat is for any other reason than stomach growling physical hunger. If it is, find other ways to address those reasons without food. Remember that physical hunger is the God given mechanism to let us know when to eat, learn to listen to it. You don’t go to the restroom just because you happen to pass one if your bladder isn’t full so don’t pop a cookie into your mouth just because you see it.
Do not eat a meal or a snack unless you are sitting down with a plate or bowl instead of eating from packages. The mere inconvenience of having to put the food on a plate might deter unnecessary eating. Avoid eating in your car or standing up.
Serve yourself adequate but not large portions of foods that nourish your good health. Try to keep sugary treats and highly processed foods to a minimum and EAT REAL FOOD! If you are eating out, recognize that most restaurants serve portions that are larger than what one person should be eating at a meal. Either share your meal or ask for a carry out container at the start of the meal and put half of the meal in it for the next time you are truly hungry.
Give your food your full attention by eating without multitasking with the tv, a book, a computer or phone. If you must eat alone use mealtime as a quiet time for reflection and gratitude. Take the time to appreciate the taste, aroma and texture of your food. If you do not like eating in silence, try playing some low volume soft jazz or instrumental gospel music in the background. It can make mealtime a very relaxing experience and a great way to de-stress.
Eat slowly and stop when you are comfortably full. It takes a full 20 minutes for your brain to realize your stomach is full. Pause between bites and sip water to slow you down. If you eat too fast you are more likely to overeat.
If you can think of other tips, feel free to add them in the comments. In the interest of full disclosure, while I have been researching this blog I have spent the last two weeks using myself as a test case to try to break my lifelong habit of distracted eating. I have eaten all my food sitting down at a desk or table from or plate or bowl without watching tv, reading or looking at my phone. I have to admit that distracted eating has been one of the hardest habits I have ever tried to break! I challenge you to try it for a week. It really takes effort! It is said that it takes 21 days to develop a habit, so after another week I should have an additional reliable tool in my toolbox to help me become a healthier me.
Yvonne Moore, MD
“Dear friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit. 3 John 1:2 (NLT)