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Why we don’t realize we overeat

With so many food choices, it’s easy to eat too much. Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, a “Today” contributor, tells you how to stop mindless eating.
/ Source: TODAY

In the U.S., food is not only plentiful, but also reasonably cheap, and readily available. We’re faced with dozens of food choices each day whether it’s at your local grocery store, your favorite restaurant, or your neighborhood fast-food joint that’s open 24 hours. With so many options, it’s easy to see why so many Americans lose track of what they’re eating and have a hard time losing those extra pounds.

Many of the patients at my clinic honestly can’t figure out why they keep piling on the pounds. Their perception is that they’re monitoring what they eat and they’re being careful not to consume too many calories. But when we go over their food records together, they’re surprised to discover that there are times when they have simply eaten too much. Why is there such a disconnect between what we think we eat and what we actually eat?

Often this is due to what is called “mindless eating.” This happens when we don’t pay attention to what we’re eating. Of course, most of us know there are times when we weren’t paying attention to what we were putting in our mouths, but usually that’s only after we’ve polished off a whole bag of chips, a heaping plate of pasta or a pint of ice cream. But how can we recognize mindless eating habits before we eat too much? I’d like to give you ideas on how to recognize it before it happens. This is what I call the “think before you eat” approach to food. It works for me and my patients, and I hope it will for you, too.

Why do we eat what we eat?
For several decades, scientific research has studied why people eat and how their eating habits change in different circumstances. These studies repeatedly show that our eating habits are influenced by a variety of factors ranging from plate size to social setting to the volume of food at a meal. This is what I call external influences on eating.

Equally important are what I call internal influences, such as how we allow ourselves to disconnect from our food choices and lose interest in what we’re eating. This is not, of course, a personal failing; it can happen for many different reasons. Often we are distracted from what we’re eating by things such as fatigue, stress, emotional turmoil, and depression. Or we use food as way to reward ourselves. There are many ways to regain control over what you eat, cut back on calories consumed, and improve your overall eating habits.

How do you gain control over mindless eating?We all do some mindless eating on occasion. But if you’re having a hard time losing weight, then it’s time to develop a plan to break the habit of mindless eating. This involves recognizing external and internal influences over your eating.

Here are some strategies to reconnect with your food and minimize the damage that mindless eating can do to your weight loss plan: 

  • Think before you eat. This doesn’t mean don’t eat, but make better food choices instead.
  • Stay connected. Choose to think about food choices all day long. Decide if you are hungry, thirsty, or just bored before eating.
  • Determine if what you are feeling is biological hunger or emotional hunger. Here’s a good rule of thumb to determine if you’re really hungry: If you eat about 100 calories and feel satisfied, then it’s likely biological hunger. If you still feel the urge to eat more and more, it’s likely emotional hunger.
  • Keep your mouth busy with low-calorie activities such as chewing sugarless gum, eating mints, or drinking water or low-calorie drinks.
  • Pay attention to the portion size, not the plate size. Look for pre-packaged single serving foods. This way you can eat the “whole thing” without any guilt.
  • Make your food go farther. Adding water, ice, and air will make it seem as though you’re eating more, but they won’t add calories. So add ice to a glass of juice or put a dollop of fat-free whipped topping on your pie, instead of a scoop of ice cream.
  • Don’t “eyeball” servings. Measure them out or buy pre-packaged ones.
  • Recognize when you are feeling satisfied. I use a three-point scale to gauge this and aim for level two, which is when I’m content, but could eat more. Avoid level three, which is when you feel stuffed.
  • Bring your own “stash” of food to work, so you can avoid the abundance of office candy, platters, snacks, and other well-intentioned (but often unhealthy) foods.
  • Learn to barter with yourself — pick one item instead of another less healthy one.

Dr. Fernstrom’s Bottom Line: We are bombarded with food options on a regular basis and it’s easy to stop paying attention to what you eat as a result. Mindless eating, though, can lead to weight gain and even affect your overall health. There are simple strategies you can use to become a more mindful eater. It’s not about depriving yourself; it’s about making better choices.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS,is the founder and director of the An associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Fernstrom is also a board-certified nutrition specialist from theAmerican College of Nutrition.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.