Mindless Eating

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, a friend recommended the book Mindless Eating to me and I happened to run across it at my friendly local used book store (Nice Price Books) and picked up a copy. I finished it a week or two ago and thought it was great!

It’s by a researcher at Cornell University who studies food and eating behavior, and the studies themselves are fascinating (I especially liked the one about North Dakota wine) and also the insight it gives about simple things you can do to adjust your eating patterns seems really useful.

The point that I liked the most was in the end where he talks about working on changing habits.

The basic thrust of the book is that there are a lot of small things in our environment that add up to encourage people to eat more than they want or need to, and by paying attention to those things and flipping them around, you can set up your food environment to push you in the other direction.

His strategy is that you should take some time to figure out where your problem areas are — Do you get hungry in the afternoon and buy snacks from the vending machine? Do you go out with friends and eat and drink too much at happy hour? Do you take too many second helpings at the dinner table? — and then work to change those problem areas by creating new habits.

To do this, you come up with up to three simple habits you will focus on for the next month. (You don’t want to do more than three because you want to keep it simple and not try to make too many changes at once. Doing a little bit at a time will be easier and almost imperceptible, so you’re less likely to run into the difficulties people hit when trying to make a whole bunch of big changes.) Things like, “I will drink a glass of water before I eat,” or “I will plate food in the kitchen and not leave serving bowls on the table,” or “I will park at the far end of the parking lot even if there are spots closer.”

You take out a piece of paper and write down the habit(s) you want to establish with a column for each day of the month, and every day you do the thing you’re supposed to, you put a check mark in the column for that day. Once you’ve reliably established that habit — when it starts to feel like second nature and you don’t have to think about it much anymore — you can move on to a new habit.

I love this idea because it’s simple and manageable and it gives people something really specific to focus on.

A few years ago I was working on a project that resulted in a lot of procrastination, and I started working away from my office in an internet-free location to avoid internet-based procrastination (my usual downfall) so I had to come up with some new procrastination options, and I started playing pool.

One of the more interesting things I discovered while playing pool was that if I focused on what I wanted to happen — like if I wanted to hit the ball really hard, and I thought about hitting the ball really hard — I would invariably make a terrible shot. (Random aside, a guy I was playing with once told me that to hit it hard I should pretend I was hitting my boyfriend upside the head — “Just smack it. Smack it as hard as you can.”) But if I focused on what I needed to do to hit the ball hard — draw my elbow straight back, keep my arm close to my body — more times than not, the shot would be great.

And I think that revelation totally fits with the Mindless Eating approach.

You break down your problem into small, very specific pieces, then focus on one piece at a time. So you’re not thinking about the larger issue at all (hitting the ball hard, losing weight) you’re taking action to address specific problems (keeping your elbow straight, not taking seconds at dinner). Once one problem is fixed, you can move on to the next.

I think this idea can be applied to almost anything — not just health-related things like eating better and exercising more but any problem area in you life, from watching less tv to keeping your house clean to spending more time with friends and family. Pick one thing you do that causes problems and work on changing that one thing. Once that’s changed, pick something else. You probably won’t see immediate results, but you’ll make steady progress and that’s likely to be more sustainable than larger, more drastic changes.

And definitely check out the book if you get the chance — Mindless Eating by Bryan Wansinik, Ph.D. — or for you short-attention span folks, the website.

6 Responses to “Mindless Eating”

  1. Bryant Says:

    Rebecca–this is so helpful. I took a beginning mindful meditation class a few years ago. Our first assignment was to pick a simple small action in our lives that we did every day and pay close attention to it. Sounds easy, but it was humbling difficult. I had picked, paying attention to starting my car engine. I kept being half way to Raleigh before I remembered. What this has taught me is that small tiny steps are huge…I will stop here–but thanks so much for reading and condensing this book for us.

  2. Betsy Says:

    I loved that book. The advice was really practical, and the experiments were totally fascinating.

  3. Lorrie Says:

    I read this book a few weeks ago on your recommendation and found it very interesting. I am not overweight, but my weight had been very slowly creeping up since January in spite of starting training at the end of May to run a 5K. I have never been a runner so this is the first time I have attempted running and am going about it very slowly. It took me 3 weeks to be able to run a whole mile without stopping. I actually gained 2 more pounds in the first 2 weeks of doing a little running and was really frustrated. So, after reading Mindless Eating, I decided to make a few small changes as suggested in the book, and the weight is slowly coming off. I started to almost always use a smaller plate. I have been mindful about the portion size I give myself and really think about it before I take seconds just because something was so good. Finally, I only allow myself dessert after supper if I go for a walk or do some other physical activity that will burn 200 or 300 calories. These small changes have been easy and are working. I still get my treat (something like a one scoop ice cream cone or one or two homemade cookies) and don’t feel deprived. Thank you for suggesting this book.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Good to hear that the suggestions work. I like the “trade” idea he talks about (that’s not what he calls it, but I gave away my copy of the book so I can’t check) where if you do A, you can eat B — your approach of being able to eat dessert if you go for a walk. I think it’s a good carrot-and-stick approach that will seem totally reasonable, because you’re setting up the rules yourself, and you won’t feel deprived and it’s likely to be effective.

    However I think the whole approach is likely to work better for people whose weight has slowly crept up and need to lose 10% to 15% of their body weight. I’m not sure how well it would work for people who need to lose a lot of weight (more than 15% of their body weight). Everything I’ve read indicates that this is much more difficult, and that your body just doesn’t want to give up that weight. A few studies I read about have shown that obese people on a reduced-calorie diet respond physiologically the way normal-weight people respond to starvation, where all you can think about is food. So I’m not sure if the kind of small changes the book talks about would be effective for very overweight people, who have been overweight for all or most of their lives, or if it would still trigger the same physiological response.

  5. fernando Says:


    The advice came perfect. Im in that point in life where I need to make changes, but I dont know where to start, and Im not thinking on my belly only, but big improvments.

    Thanks fot the blog, someday you’ll go to heaven :)

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks, Fernando. I’m glad it is helping.

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