Mindless Eating

Jennifer LaRue Huget and Brian Wansink
Eat, Drink and Be Healthy columnist; Author
Tuesday, December 8, 2009; 12:00 PM

Eat, Drink and Be Healthy columnist Jennifer LaRue Huget will discuss the benefits of eating mindlessly and how to do it. She will be joined by Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think."

They were online Tuesday, December 8, at noon ET to take questions.


Funny lead-in paragraph: I think you mean the benefits of mindful, not mindless, eating?

Brian Wansink: Some people are very good at eating mindfully.

Then . . . there are the rest of us.

The key to Mindless Eating, isn't necessarily "mind ful" eating. Many of us don't have the time or self-discipline for that. As my research shows, some of the smartest people in the US cannot do that even after hours of instruction.

The key to Mindless Eating is to reorganize your envionment (cnady dishes, plates, serving habits, etc.) to mindlessly eat less than to mindlessly eat more.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a huge stress eater... but it's not only eating when I'm not hungry. In times of stress, I actually feel like I'm starving all the time and need to keep eating! Any tips for breaking this cycle, other than eating things that are more filling?

Jennifer Huget: This is my biggest diet bugaboo, too: I don't think that eating more-filling stuff helps me. I try to rein in my stress eating by allowing myself ONLY to eat while seated at the table (no cramming food in my mouth while I write at my desk), refusing to eat anything straight out of the bag or box (put a little bit of a snack in a small bowl), and finding other ways -- like yoga or taking the dog outside -- to alleviate stress. I'm working on setting my environment up in such a way that I can eat "mindlessly" without doing damage to my diet.


Jennifer Huget: What's a better way to eat healthfully during the holidays and beyond -- eating mindfully, or eating mindlessly? Let's chat!


Arlington, Va.: I am a binge eater -- how do you see these as being connected?

Brian Wansink: Binge eating can be caused by a number of things. In content-analyzing food diaries, we've found a big reason sometimes relates to people skipping meals. It's interesting, however, what one binges upon.

Twenty years of my research can be summarized by saying "Our tastes are not formed by accident." The fact we like comfort foods is predictable, but it is also somewhat predictable which foods we will like, when and why we like them, and when all of it backfires.

For starters, we found that men prefer meal-related comfort foods like steak, pasta, pizza, burgers because they make them feel special and well-taken care of. Women, on the other hand, don't think of these as comfort foods. These foods reminded them of work - cooking and clean-up. Women much preferred the convenience of the snack foods, like cookies, chocolate, and ice cream. Eating ice cream from the container equals no cooking and no clean-up.


Washington, D.C.: This summer, I lost 15 pounds. I find that avoiding trigger foods is one reason I have been successfully maintaining my goal size for the past six months. I find that once I start eating a "trigger" food at a party, I can't stop! There are certain things I just can't take a "taste" of (thanks for nothing Bethenney Frankel!). It's okay for me to overindulge once a month, but I have at least three holiday parties this month, not counting the holiday days themselves. Am I doomed to just avoid certain food groups (sweet baked goods, most anything with cheese) entirely (or else gain a few pounds)?

Jennifer Huget: This question comes up a lot, and most experts I've talked to say you have to figure out which kind of person you are: The kind who can be satisfied with just a taste of a favorite, desired food and who finds it hard to maintain a weight-loss diet without an occasional treat, and the kind who, like yourself, feels safest by just going cold turkey. Maybe you could experiment a bit with allowing small samples of a few of your "trigger" foods and keep track in your food diary of how you respond. I don't see how you could stick to eating nothing with cheese on it for the rest of your life!


Anonymous: When reading at my desk or working at my computer, if often feel a need to eat, especially when I come to a passage that I am anxious to read. I there a direct cause between reading and my hunger sensations? How can I control this? Thanks for your time.

Jennifer Huget: I have this problem, too! I have figured out that usually my compulsion to eat under such circumstances is mostly about procrastination, trying to avoid doing the work that I clearly have to get done. A therapist friend of mine once urged me just to force myself to dig in and get my work done, and my craving/distraction might pass. When I manage to do so, I find I don't even want to eat so much when I've finished my work.


Ohio: How can I eat sensible when my club chooses a buffet restaurant?

Brian Wansink:
Great question. We did a study on this -- what do skinny people do differently than heavy people at buffets. I've included a bit down below, but here is the basic news you can use tonight:

1) Don't pick up a plate until you've scouted the entire buffet
2) Don't sit facing the food

Additionally, we recommend using the Buffet Rule of Two if you're really serious. You can take whatever you want, but only two items go on your plate at the same time. You can keep going back for more food, but never more than two at a time.

When dining at Chinese Buffets, overweight individuals serve themselves and eat differently than normal weight individuals, which may cause them to overeat, according to a recent study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Overweight diners are more likely than normal weight diners to sit closer to the buffet, use larger plates vs. smaller plate, use forks instead of chopsticks, and serve themselves immediately instead of browsing the buffet.

"Obese people pick up a plate and start serving themselves where other people are more likely to walk around and look at the food either with a plate or before they even pick up one," says lead author Brian Wansink.

He's currently on leave from his job as the director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab and serving as Executive Director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The study was published in the journal Obesity and includes observations of 213 diners at 11 all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant buffets across the country. Study participants included a range of normal weight to obese diners, none of whom were Asian.

Major study findings include:
¿ 71% of normal-weight diners browsed the buffet before serving themselves ccompared to 33% of obese diners
¿ 27% of normal-weight patrons faced the buffet compared to 42% of obese diners.
¿ 16% of obese diners sat at a booth rather than a table compared to 38% of normal weight diners
¿ 24% of normal-weight people used chopsticks compared with 9% of overweight people
¿ Overweight diners sat an average of 16 feet closer than normal-weight diners.
When food is more convenient people tend to eat more. These seemingly subtle differences in behavior and environment may cause people to overeat without even realizing it.


Washington, D.C.: I do great until I'm at home with the kids after school. They are hungry and I snack with them. Any strategies you use to make it without snacking until dinner?

Brian Wansink: Two Ideas:

1) A Kid-only Cupboard.
2) Tell yourself you can have a snack only if you first eat a piece of fruit.


Washington, D.C.: How can I help apply these principles when chasing a toddler around? I find that I'm eating on her schedule (four mini-meals and two snacks a day), yet I'm not eating the small portions she does and I certainly don't have as much growing to do as she does.

Jennifer Huget: You'd think all that toddler-chasing would burn enough calories that you wouldn't have to think about your weight, right? Maybe you need to find a way to stop eating on your little one's schedule so much. Does she take a nap? If so, maybe you could use some of that time (between laundry and your own nap, that is!) to sit down and eat a little meal of your very own. Another thought would be to make those toddler-sized portions work for you: When you fill up her containers of baby carrots and Goldfish crackers, fill a second set for yourself and just eat what fits in them. It's all easier said than, done, I know. Hang in there: toddlers turn into teenagers really quickly!


Virginia Beach, Va.: I love the idea that one could savor the holidays through savoring food. What effects on weight, if any, have you seen in your experience when employing these tricks with clients/patients/participants?

Brian Wansink: Lots of great anecdotes and a new paper coming out this month in the American Economic Review which shows, the average weight loss of non-dieting people averaged around 2 lbs/month if they only made one change (like using smaller dinner plates). Dieters lost a lot more (but then they would have anyway).

On a Virginia Beach note, my brother Craig and his family are down there. He's a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College. Say "Hi" if you ever see him.


Raleigh, N.C.: How can we take this concept to the community level...not just the personal level?

Jennifer Huget: Brian may want to answer this, too, but let me just say that I've been talking about mindful/mindless eating with all my friends and especially my fast-eating family lately. You have to be careful not to sound like a nag, but just think how much nicer work-day lunches with colleagues and evening meals with your family would be if everyone at the table were eating at the same pace and with the same level of enjoyment!


Always Hungry: I'm currently on Weight Watchers, and am trying to change the way that I eat, and the way that I think of food.

However, I often find myself "feeling" hungry and desperately wanting to eat something, even 30 minutes after I've eaten! Am I just that used to over eating? Any tips on how to recalibrate my body's sense of hunger?

Brian Wansink: We've worked with a few different people with this same challenge.

In a couple cases, the biggest culprit was the fact they waited too long between meals.

This could have to do with your stomach being either to big or too empty. Two ideas that have worked are to drink water before and after meals, and to make sure you eat something -- a snack or piece of fruit -- in between meals.

Also, this problem is something we often find with people who don't eat meat and who don't eat "hot food" at meals. Both are more sating.


Outdoor Cat v.s Indoor Cat: Living in the country we had pet cats that lived outdoors.

All of these outdoor cats had to be called to come to eat and did not beg for food. Most of the time they were 50 to 100 yards away from our house. Being predators they were constantly roaming, killing mice and occasionally a bird and patroling their territory of a couple of acres. Needless to say all of these cats during my childhood were healthy, lean and fit cats.

As young adults we took our pet country cat to live with us in our apartment. The cat ate more food. Begged for food. Yowled for more food and was always underfoot looking for more food. He was left alone most of the day to an empty apartment. He quickly gained a huge amount of weight. Seeing that he was not fit for apartment living and was getting to be a fat cat with nothing better to do than beg for food, we took back home to our parents in the country.

Quickly, the cat lost weight and stopped begging for food since he had mice to chase and a couple of acres to patrol and occupy his time.

We humans sit in our homes watching TV and "reality shows", playing on the computer playing virtual games and wonder why we get fat.

Brian Wansink: Excellent point.

People often want to say that reason we are so overweight is because food is tasty, available, and relatively cheap.

Very true. But none of us would want to give that up to go back and hunt buffalo and harvest squash.

We need to work within our environment to make this happen.


San Juan, P.R.: Obesity is now predicted to increase to almost 50 percent of U.S. adults within the next 10 years. Do you foresee any realistic measures that can be taken to halt this epidemic?

Brian Wansink: Yes. Here's the solution for the next generation.

I think the solution lies with the nutritional gatekeeper of the house.

The nutritional gatekeeper is the person in the house who buys food and prepares it. We estimate the Gatekeeper controls 72% of all of the food decisions of their children and spouse. They either control these decisions for the better or for the worse.

We are too often terrible role models for our children when it comes to eating habits.


Arlington, Va.: I find that if I eat mindlessly or without sitting down I act like that food doesn't count. This is dangerous -- as later on I will almost convince myself that I need a meal (especially if my husband cooks). Meanwhile, if I add up the calories, the mindless eating clearly makes a difference on the scale. Do I need therapy to avoid this secret eating? Maybe I just need to be honest and write everything down?

Jennifer Huget: There are lots of strategies for curbing that mindless eating you describe that don't necessarily involve therapy. Brian recommends some great ones in Mindless Eating: store foods that aren't good for you in the back of the fridge, freezer or pantry where you won't see them every time you go by. Eat only at the table, and never out of a package/box/bag. Keep only good-for-you foods in plain view: fruit on the kitchen counter, not M&Ms in a clear glass jar. And chew gum when you feel like eating from the "4 Cs" chips, cookies, ice cream and candy.


Brian Wansink: To Arlington, VA.

One useful tool to help is to use the MyPyramid Menu Planner at www.MyPyramid.gov.

Also, see if you can make it a policy , starting in January, to go one whole month and only eat in the home if you are sitting down in the dining room or kitchen.

Another tip we tried with a person was to tell him he could continue grazing, but each time he did, he had to say -- out loud -- "I'm not hungry, but I'm going to eat this anyway." He stopped grazing by the next time we met.


Rules to Eating: Remember when?

Your mom did not allow you to eat in front of the TV?

You did not eat in your car?

You did not walk down the street eating food?

You did not eat food in your bed unless you were sick and someone brought it to you?

You only ate at a table?

You did not eat food at your desk. The only thing you could do was drink coffee, tea or a soda.

Fast food was not considered a real meal.

People cooked food at home.

People knew what to do with flour, sugar, eggs, etc.

Home Economics was taught in school and folks learned how to prepare and eat a balanced meal.

You ate most of your food required you to eat with a fork and knife versus your hands.

The only candy in the office was peppermint candy.

The only carryout food was Chinese if you lived in the suburbs or city.

Now we have food available 24/7 EVERYWHERE.

Brian Wansink: Brilliant!

Most of us don't overeat because we're hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.

Our studies show that the average person makes around 250 decisions about food every day - breakfast or no breakfast? Pop-tart or bagel? Part of it or all of it? Kitchen or car? Yet out of these 200+ food decisions, most we cannot really explain. Mindless Eating shows what these decisions are and how to make them work for you rather than against you.


Somewhere, USA: I don't think there is a difference between comfort foods. I don't equate pizza, steak or other "manly" food with being too difficult to eat or make. Cookies and ice cream are boring. Am I unusual? I have had an eating disorder for 18 years but I don't understand your theories. Also, if you are starving why can't you munch on something that feels safe if it seems like you wouldn't feel guilty after eating it? I love popcorn and it has fiber and a great taste. So snack away.

Brian Wansink: Our comfort food studies were done with 1000+ people, so the law of averages works. These aren't huge, huge differences, but they are statistically significant. Having said that, guys like chips and woman like pasta, they just don[t always call them "favorite comfort foods."

Lots of popcorn is great -- especially if it is the microwave kind and not the movie theatre kind.


Always Hungry, again: At this point, I'm eating 5 times a day -- breakfast (oatmeal), snack (fruit or veggie), lunch (low point frozen meal or sandwich), snack (yogurt), and dinner (salad or low point frozen meal). probably drinking 6-8 cups of water/unsweet iced tea a day.

Brian Wansink: Something else to consider would be to try and walk or exercise. Some of the people we've worked with report a reduction of cravings when they became more active. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it appears to work for some.


Kicking the sugar. . .: I recently spent two weeks eating lean, protein, non-starchy vegetables, and dairy. I was able to kick my carb cravings. Though, I'm adding carbs back in -- orange vegetables, fruit, and oatmeal. I noticed that even though I'm in a really stressful period right now I haven't reached for the box of crackers, cookies, or other carb-laden foods.

Jennifer Huget: You don't say how difficult you found those two weeks of lean eating, but you're not alone in finding that if you can just manage to break the cycle, it gets easier to avoid craving carbs (or whatever food is the object of your craving). Good for you for swapping healthful foods such as vegetables, fruit and oatmeal for those packaged, processed foods you were eating before! I imagine you feel -- and likely look -- better already. Keep up the good work!


Thuwal-Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: What about a non-diet approach to healthy weight management that includes whole food based eating and promotion of "slow food" over fast food at a community level, and mindfulness based practices on an individual level? This is an area of interest here, with a rise in obesity and diabetes.

Jennifer Huget: One of the themes of my Eat, Drink and Be Healthy column is to not talk about weight-loss diets but to focus instead on positive, healthful eating. The whole-food and slow-food movements are fantastic in that they encourage people to seek healthful, often locally produced foods over packaged, processed ones and to take their time preparing and eating those foods. Unfortunately, many people feel that their lives are too busy to accommodate shopping for whole foods and choosing slow over fast food. If we as a society could find a way to make it easier for people to access wholesome foods instead of fast food, we'd be on our way to a healthier population, I think.


Central New York: I just read the article "Give well, eat well" last week recommending a spoon rest that provides a Mindless Cue not to overeat. Does this really work?

Brian Wansink: Different cues can be really helpful, and there's some great "mindless products" on the market.

Setting your spoon down between bites would work for some people, but our recent study showed that it's tough for most people to remember to do.


Lesson learned: A few years ago, I came home from grocery store where I had purchased some "party" food (i.e., bag of chips and salsa) that a neighbor asked me to pick up for her. I left the foodstuffs on the kitchen counter. I later walked into kitchen to find my two teen-aged boys tucking into the treats. "What are you doing? Why are you eating that?," I cried. Their response: "I dunno. 'Cuz it's here?" Hmmmm.

Jennifer Huget: Well, teenaged boys ARE a breed apart, right? But having said that, I think your example is excellent. It's the old "See-Food Diet" that Brian writes about in Mindless Eating: people on that diet -- which is too many of us -- eat everything we see. That's where Brian's suggestion to put unhealthful foods out of sight; don't even bring them into the house, if you can avoid it.

On the other hand, I don't know what kind of chips you bought, but salsa's usually a pretty healthful snack!


Costa Mesa, Calif.: What do you think of products like The Right Bite, which is an actual tool that tells you when it is time to take your next bite? Would this be something you would recommend to help people modify their eating habits to be more mindful?

Brian Wansink: One of the 7 wonders of the world -- the iPhone -- has led to a number of really creative apps that help people eat better. I bet I have 90% of them.

One that I just downloaded yesterday is called FoodScanner. You hold the phone up to a product's UPC label, and it tells you how many calories. Too cool.


Jennifer Huget: Central New York: That spoon rest that I wrote about in my gift guide last week was actually from Brian's Mindless Eating Web site. It's meant to be a kitchen serving-spoon rest, and it is supposed to remind you to serve your meals from the pots and pans in the kitchen, not from bowls and platters on the dining-room table. Brian's research shows that people eat less if they have to get up and go back to the kitchen for seconds instead of just scooping more out of the bowl in front of them.


What is your hobby?: Remember when people had hobbies? Stuff you liked to do. Now the only shared hobby people have is eating. I ask people what do they do besides eat. Do you volunteer? Have a 2nd job. Walk the dog for a couple of hours. Coach little kids in a sport. I challenge people to find something to do that does not involve eating.

If I wasn't eating....could I learn to play the guitar....do a 1000 piece puzzle.....clean my car.....paint a room....fix the faucet.....oil all the hinges in house....clean out that closet that is filled to the brim....take a class...go bowling....take a walk....buy the paint to paint the room, etc.

Your hobby should not be watching TV and eating.

Jennifer Huget: You make an excellent point. I think a lot of people feel they are too busy for the kinds of hobbies and other activities you describe. It's so terribly easy to fit eating into our day, especially when we do it while doing something else, too. Maybe we should all make a New Year's resolution to try a new hobby or add a new activity -- one from your list, perhaps -- to our routine. I've been meaning to learn to play the banjo for years.....


Pennsylvania: Hi there, I know I overeat-most due to emotional issues; portion control is also a big part of my issue with food. I want to make sure that my toddler (just turned 4) doesn't end up with the same issues I have...with that being said, at his 4-year-old checkup, the doctor told me his height wasn't keeping up with his weight -- that he was carrying a little too much weight. Now, of course, I'm hypersensitive about how much he eats (WHAT he eats is healthy -- very few processed foods, so I'm not worried about that.) Any ideas on how best (for me) to be careful/mindful for him?

Brian Wansink: It's good to hear that he's eating lots of the healthy foods (and not too many processed foods).

There's good research that shows that its very easy for kids -- especially girls -- to inherit their parent's anxieties about food. The more we obsess, the more they appear to grow up to obsess.

Being a good role model and being a good nutritional gatekeeper are two the best things you can do. Not making him clean his plate and giving him lots of healthy snacks (between meals) also helps.

Another key part of the equation is playing outside. Maybe your next playdate can involve something outside. Snow forts or sledding?


Craving Food: Kicking the carbs is just like every other diet. It isn't one because you will keep wanting it. I was a vegetarian for 9 months but fell out of that diet because I started craving canned tuna. If you like it you will keep wanting to eat it. Why deny yourself instead of learning how to get away from the current diet being sold in a bookstore or on a commercial?

Brian Wansink: Well put.

"The best diet is the diet you don't know you're on."

Mindless Eating, p. 1


Don't buy it: "That's where Brian's suggestion to put unhealthful foods out of sight; don't even bring them into the house, if you can avoid it."

I guess I am the "nutritional gatekeeper." I don't cook, but I do all the shopping lists and long ago made a no sweets in the house rule; sweets are my husband's temptation. No crackers, either, as they are a weakness of mine. Only tortilla chips and salsa, or fresh fruit, for snacks.

I am over 40, lean and always have been. My husband is the only non-obese person in his family. I HATE when people say to us "Oh, you are so lucky you have a good metabolism!" BS, people, we just don't buy it, so we don't have it to eat.

Jennifer Huget: I'm glad you mentioned shopping lists. Every week my family helps me plan the week's meals and create a grocery list that only includes the items we need for those meals. If it's not on the list, we don't buy it. That's a great way to make sure the Pop Tarts don't make their way home with you.

Shoot. Every time I mention Pop Tarts I get a craving for one! Lucky thing I don't have any here!


Durham, N.C.: It sounds like I'm the nutritional gatekeeper in my household. I'm at a good weight, but my spouse is not. Are there tips for nutritional gatekeepers? Do I need to portion food out on plates?

Brian Wansink: The key is to make a few quiet, gradual changes.

Many guys fall into a trap of eating seconds and thirds of foods because we're faster eaters than the others at the table.

Serving the food off of the stove or counter is an easy way to reduce how many multiple servings a person has. If they want it bad enough, they can get more. But our research shows they do so about 30% less often.

Use smaller plates and serve off the stove or counter. Good luck.


Del Ray, Va.: I hope I'm not too late. My husband is a terrible eater -- as a result he is about 40 lbs overweight.

Big for him -- SODA! I haven't even bought it for about 5 years -- but he goes out and gets his six-pack of Mountain Dew bottles (2.5 servings each) and drinks 2 or 3 in one day.

Also -- on the road he seems to subsist soley on meals from Burger King.

What can I do to help him kick this habit? Is there anything? Give up?

Jennifer Huget: Maybe Brian will have a different answer, but I think the only thing you can do to help is to continue to make sure the meals at home are healthful and served in appropriate portions. You don't mention whether your husband wants to lose weight; if he doesn't, I don't think there's much you can do to make him do so. If it's appropriate to your relationship, you could find a quiet time to sit down and talk with him, to let him know you're worried about him and to offer to help if you can. Good luck.


Brian Wansink: Dear Del Ray, VA,

I'm a big lover of both pop and Burger King. Here's what I do: I drink only diet pop, but I also keep water bottles laying around so they're more accessible.

At Burger King, I have them hold the mayonnaise, and I only get fries on weekends -- weekdays i get the side salad. They'll make the substitution for free.

Good luck.


Tennessee: My downfall is peanut M and M's and semi-sweet chocolate chips. Otherwise, I'm not really much of a snacker, but I can eat those all day and as an appetizer between salad and dinner! Breakfast is after the gym -- just a small yogurt with grape-nuts around 7:30 am. But I feel sated by that. I do get the munchies (not so much hungry) by 9 a.m. If I can put that off until 10, I'll have a small snack. But then I'm starving by 11 and I try not to eat lunch until 11:30. I've thought about eating lunch earlier, but I just see that as a slippery slope, being hungry earlier and earlier. Then I'll have to have a second lunch, or something.

I did pretty well for about a month, replacing snacks with fruit, applesauce, etc. I thought I was over the M and M thing. But it's back. Fruit is good, but kind of a pain to purchase regularly, clean, prepare, and store without going bad. M&Ms work at my desk, on the run, at home, and don't require forks/knives/dishes or wasteful plastic packaging.

So many conflicting goals. What do I do?

Jennifer Huget: Brian's research was instrumental in leading to the development of the 100-calorie snack pack. You could certainly make your own: the minute you bring your bag of M&Ms home, figure out how many add up to 100 calories and count them out into baggies. The hard part will be allowing yourself only to take one baggie to work to eat at that snack time. You could make it seem like more of a snack by combining it with a piece of fruit.
I know: peanut M&Ms are wonderful.


Re: Indoor vs. Outdoor cats: Maybe the cats crave food and yowl and walk on you while you are sleeping because they are indoor cats. But some people don't want to give up on their cats and don't want them to be hit by a car when they move to an urban area. It doesn't mean you can't deal with this or have to give your cat away to your parents. People make their animals fat but they also need to consider safety. My 8-year- old girl was an indoor/outdoor cat for the first 3 years of her life and I admit that she wasn't thrilled about becoming an indoor cat but we have been together this long and I won't risk her life just because I may give her a couple treats in the morning. Cats sleep most of the day anyway.

Brian Wansink: You can also mix low-fat cat food half-and-half with her normal food. That way she can still eat a lot, but it's much less caloric.


Brian Wansink: Thanks for joining us. You can find more ideas and tips at www.MindlessEating.org.


Jennifer Huget: Wow-- great questions, everyone! Thank you to everyone who wrote in -- and especially to Brian Wansink!!


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