12/06/2012 11:18 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Mindful of Mindless Eating

At a holiday party, a relative recently took a bite of pecan pie, looked at me slyly and said, "I'm very mindful of every bite and I'm going to eat it anyway." Her point? Being mindful of your behavior isn't always going to stop you from eating something you want.

It wasn't the first time I've heard a statement like this one. Her comment revealed an underlying question that many of my clients ask: Does awareness really help? Is it "enough" to change the way you eat? If you've wondered this same thing as well, I urge you not to underestimate the power of being mindful. I will use my one of my favorite paintings to demonstrate the impact of awareness.


For a moment, take a look at this picture. It was painted for me by the fantastic company Artistree Names. What do you see? A tree (of course!). Now take a closer, second look. Can you see the words "eating mindfully" between the branches? Artistree Names uses the negative space -- the space you often don't focus your attention on -- to create something meaningful. When you look at this painting, you can choose where you place your attention -- on the foreground or background. Now that you know the words are there, try not to "see" the phrase "eating mindfully." It's difficult, almost impossible. Your perception is forever changed.

This clever painting is much like mindful eating and awareness. The moment you become aware that you are eating mindlessly, it's hard not to "see" it anymore. When you sit on the coach robotically eating chips or at a bar popping peanuts into your mouth, you recognize the behavior right away. This little inner voice speaks up and says, "Hey, I am mindlessly eating right now!"

Back to my pecan pie-eating relative. She joked about being aware of eating the pecan pie. Her comment was proof enough that she now can "spot" when mindless eating pops up. It doesn't fade into the background unnoticed. This awareness creates a choice -- a choice to continue or to stop eating. Without awareness, you have no options. You follow mindlessly behind your cravings wherever it may take you.

Still not convinced? Clinical studies have examined the effectiveness of awareness and eating. For example, Timmerman and Brown (2012) conducted a study on middle-aged women who frequently ate out at restaurants. The intervention was just teaching the women how to be more "aware" of their choices, hunger, fullness and mindless eating behavior. The result? The women ate 300 calories less each day.

Thus, the next time you hear yourself say, "Hey, I'm mindlessly eating, I am aware of it, and I'm going to do it anyway," don't fret. Sometimes that awareness will stop you in your tracks, and other times you will keep going. Regardless, you've will make a conscious choice. The consciousness will give you much more power to stop mindless eating than it would have if you had not "spotted" the mindless eating at all.

For more by Dr. Susan Albers, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

Consider joining the Mindful Eating Marathon -- 26.2 days of mindful eating! Instead of dieting this year, try something new on Jan. 1. Sign up for free on

Thank you to Artistree Names for permission to post this picture (great site to get personalized holiday gifts!) Painting by Eric Lingenfelter @2012.

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See Dr. Albers' New Book: But I Deserve This Chocolate: The 50 Most Common Diet-Derailing and How to Outwit Them. She is a psychologist for the Cleveland Clinic and author of five books on mindful eating, including 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Eating Mindfully 2nd edition (order now!). Her books have been noted in O, the Oprah magazine, Shape, Prevention, Health etc. and seen on The Dr. Oz Show on TV.