A CAPPUCCINO while driving to work, lunch on the go, or at your desk, a chocolate bar on the way back from the vending machine in the afternoon, a few slices of cheese after arriving home, and a handful of nuts and biltong while watching TV after dinner.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone: what you are indulging in is unconscious eating behaviours.
Many factors influence how you eat and the quantity and types of foods you eat, including internal and external cues. But just how conscious are you of the food-related decisions you make in response to these cues?
Dr Brian Wansink is professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Cornell University in the US, and author of Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook (Bantam).
In it he says: "At the core of Mindless Eating is the supposition that we make many more food-related decisions than we are aware of having made."
Like most people, you are likely to be blissfully unaware of just how many food-related decisions you make daily and how many of these choices can be detrimental to your health. A study conducted by Dr Wansink and colleagues found that when participants were asked to estimate how many decisions they made about food and beverages in a typical day, they significantly underestimated the number.
On average study participants estimated they made 14.4 decisions, when in fact the average number of decisions was 226.7. This shows people are often unaware of many of the decisions they make about food daily, and are likely to be engaging in "mindless eating".
Fortunately, every decision is an opportunity for you to affect your eating positively, and your health along the way. To get that right, you need to make decisions not only about what you eat, but how often you eat, and how you start and stop the process of eating.
Fighting the triggers
A good place to start is to increase your awareness of the factors that trigger eating.
Many triggers exist and these often do not even involve food itself. They include influences such as the perceived time of day, your emotional state, the social setting and who you eat with, and convenience or effort needed to obtain the food.
One of the key factors determining how much you eat is whether you are paying attention to what you are eating. The problem is that the food environment encourages you to override your hunger and satiety cues. You are bombarded by advertising campaigns and incentives from the food industry, which drive your food intake, and, like most people, your fast-paced life is simply not conducive to mindful eating.
Your awareness of what, where and how much you eat has diminished. You eat too quickly or while engaging in other activities.
Studies show plate size, packaging size, comfort, the ambience of a room, and the variety of food offered can all trigger overeating. These factors can interfere with the ability to control and keep track of what and how much has been eaten.
The typical "grazing" eating pattern, which has become common these days, can reduce awareness of how much you have consumed during the day as these "nibbles" are often difficult to quantify.
Becoming more aware of eating triggers can go a long way to helping you follow a diet that will contribute to good health and wellbeing. It is about learning to recognise, but not respond to, the inappropriate cues around you, including negative emotional states, stress, boredom and food advertisements.
Mindful eating means paying attention not only to what you eat, but also all the practices related to eating.
Learning to identify hunger and satiety cues can assist with deciding when to start and stop eating. It is important to understand more about which factors have a positive influence on eating habits and which lead to less healthy behaviours.
When you are conscious of your eating habits you can more easily make changes to habits that adversely affect your health. It may not be easy initially, and eating more mindfully requires practice, but perseverance will pay dividends in improved health.
How to make changes
Here are tips to help you eat more mindfully:
Keep temptations out of sight and out of reach. Try storing treats in opaque containers or on the top shelf of a cupboard. Have healthier snacks and options readily available and serve food on smaller plates. Avoid lingering too long around the snack tables at cocktail parties and conferences.
Eat more thoughtfully and consciously
Be attentive and become more aware of how the following factors influence your eating:
• Where you eat: Out of the packet while standing in the kitchen or at the table? Do you find you tend to eat more at home or when out? Aim to eat most meals sitting down, at a table (preferably not your desk) and try not to eat on the run.
• When you eat: Are you hungry, bored, upset, happy or sad? Be careful of emotional triggers, which can often override hunger cues.
• What you eat: Think about your food choices. Is the food providing you with nutrients to nourish your body or is it laden with salt, sugar and fat or "empty" calories? Planning ahead can help reduce your reliance on less healthy convenience meals and fast foods.
• How much you eat: When do you start eating and when do you stop? When you feel satisfied or full, or when the packet is empty?
• Who do you eat with?: Do the people you eat with influence your eating in any way? Are your choices influenced by the choices of those around you? Do you eat differently depending on whether or not you are with familiar faces or new acquaintances?
• Do not multitask. The aim is to just eat, rather than eat and talk, eat and work, or eat and drive. Put a ban on eating in front of the TV, or at least place a limit on how often this happens in your household. Even if you cannot always get away from your desk at lunch time, put your phone on silent in your desk drawer and turn your computer screen out of view while you are eating. Try to focus on enjoying your meal.
• Take your time
Take time to chew properly, pause between mouthfuls, and savour your food. Focus on the appearance, aroma, taste, and texture of the food. This can help you to slow down, feel more satisfied after the meal, and stop you reaching for second helpings.
• Spare a thought for what you drink
A large proportion of the calories we consume are found in beverages. Lattes, cappuccinos, smoothies, fruit juices, sodas, iced teas, freezos, alcohol and energy drinks can contribute a significant quantity of calories to your diet, yet many individuals tend to be more aware of calories from food and fail to monitor what they drink.
• Impulse delay
This involves thinking before you eat. Before you reach for the bag of crisps, take a moment to think about why you want them. You may often act so quickly on impulse that you don’t take the time to process your thoughts and decide whether you really need to eat something. By not acting on the impulse immediately, you will gain the willpower required to avoid eating something you do not really need.
• Get organised, and plan ahead
This can prevent the need to make food-related decisions in a rush or on the go, which often leads to spontaneous decisions made when you feel "over-hungry". This can make you more vulnerable to less healthy choices.
• Track your eating
Try keeping a food diary, even just for one or two weeks. Write down everything you eat and drink at breakfast, lunch and supper as well as in-between, no matter how big or small. You will soon identify your biggest challenges to healthy eating. Look out for less desirable items that feature too frequently, as well as gaps, for example inadequate daily fruit and vegetable intake or not enough water.
By eating more mindfully, you will acquire a better understanding of your eating behaviours and be able to change how you eat.
Making some small, simple changes can go a long way to improving your health. Avoid overwhelming yourself by trying to change too much at once. Start by making a commitment to work on just two or three priority areas and move on to others once you have accomplished this.
Becoming more mindful of when and how you eat is a positive first step.