THE BLOG

How to Escape the Mindless Eating Trap

03/27/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015
Melissa Ross via Getty Images

Mindless eating is that eating that happens outside of our awareness, like when we finish the basket of tortilla chips without even realizing it, or keep returning to the kitchen on autopilot to keep trimming off one more slice of brownie, or finish our huge restaurant serving just because it's there.

It usually feels out of control, leaves us feeling self-defeated, and (this is a big one for me), when we eat mindlessly, we don't even get to enjoy the food that we're eating. It's a big waste of time, energy, and calories. It's also a big cause of overeating and weight gain.

It can be hard to figure out how to stop something that you are doing automatically or without paying attention, but shifting from mindless to mindful eating can lead to tremendous changes with overeating, weight, and your health. Here are five steps to break the autopilot eating cycle and stop mindless eating.

Five Steps to Stop Mindless Eating

1. Start with compassion (stop beating yourself up). Mindless eating is an incredibly frustrating pattern and it's pretty common to react to it by getting angry with yourself. This only makes things worse. Self-blame and frustration shut down your capacity to really pay attention to what's going on. You'll be far more successful if you channel that energy into building a new habit. When you catch yourself mindlessly eating, stop, take a deep breath, and pay attention to what's going on. Recognize that you caught yourself (even if it is after the fact) and that you are working to do things differently.

2. Target one situation at a time. We love the idea of big changes don't we? Problem is, the process of making them tends to get overwhelming and just-plain doesn't work. Pick one situation, time of day, meal, setting, etc. where you would like to focus on transforming your mindless eating.

3. Make a list of everything you know that contributes to mindless eating in that specific situation. For instance, maybe you are eating at your desk and focused on the work that you are doing, or the TV is on during dinner. Perhaps there is a part of you that craves the mindless eating experience or there are hidden hungers that are triggering you to overeat. Mindless eating might be an opportunity to zone out or put off something difficult. Maybe it feels good not to have to think about what you are putting in your mouth all the time.

If you can't think of anything to write down, don't panic. You can still use this process.

4. Make a list of possible ways you could be one inch more mindful of what you are eating in your target situation. One inch. I'm not suggesting you aim for completely fixing or changing it. One inch means that you are setting the goal of being more effective than you were yesterday. Maybe you decide to count out six tortilla chips and place them on a napkin in front of you instead of eating from the basket, or you decide to eat lunch without multitasking, or stop halfway through your meal and ask yourself if you are still hungry. These are just a few strategies. Experiment and try what you think might work for you.

Here are some basic strategies that help interrupt mindless eating:

  • Pause before eating and state your intention to be mindful (see #5, below)
  • Portion out your food in advance instead of serving yourself at the table, snacking from a container, or snacking on little "slivers" or pieces of something.
  • Whenever possible, give eating your sole attention. Focus on what you are doing and allow yourself to fully taste or savor your food.
  • When you know in advance that your attention will be divided (like a social event), set a policy about how and how much you want to eat. For instance, you might decide you won't eat bread if it's served with the meal or you might decide to choose only two appetizers from the buffet. Maybe you'll put your fork down and pause after every two bites. Making a decision in advance gives you a structure to follow instead of proceeding on autopilot and drifting into mindless eating.

5. Practice pausing. Mindless eating is tricky because it feels so ... mindless. Before you find yourself in the situation you've decided to target, decide on some ways to pause, check in with yourself, and remind yourself of your plan. Create a pausing ritual. This might be as simple as using the habit of washing your hands before eating to remind yourself of the strategy you are going to try. You can pause and bless your food or say grace before you eat. This can be a time to remind yourself, "Today, I will be mindful." Ground yourself when you reapply your lipstick. Try to pick a pausing ritual that you can connect with something you already do.

Remember, you don't have to get it perfect. You can pause before you eat and you can use this strategy if you catch yourself in the midst of (or after) a mindless eating episode.

Taking control of mindless eating is a process and the five steps to stop mindless eating are meant to be repeated. Each time you do, you'll learn more about what causes (and complicates) your mindless eating and you'll gather more information and strategies (and strength) to help you stop it.

This article was previously published at TooMuchonHerPlate.com where Melissa McCreery shares tips and resources for moving beyond the 3 Os - overwhelm, overload, and overeating - so that you can create a life you love. To get useful tips and strategies for making changes that last, join her free newsletter and sign up to take the free Hidden Hungers Quiz.