The Mindless (Over)Eater

Human behavior is an interesting subject.  For instance, what influences people how much to eat is not just dependent on hunger or the taste of the food itself.  It involves so many other variables, some you may not even consider as having an effect on the way you eat. This notion of mindless eating is studied by Brian Wansink Ph.d at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, where the focus is on ‘hidden persuaders around us that influence how much we eat.’  He is the author of the book I recently read, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, published in 2006.  Although the book is 10 years old, the concepts presented are still pertinent and help us be more aware of the outside influences that can lead us to overeat.

So what leads us to overeat?  Many factors come into play from plate sizes to the type of lighting in a restaurant, labels and packages, even your family and friends.  Many examples were presented in the book but I’m rounding it up to five of the ones I found most compelling.

We rely on visual cues to indicate when to stop eating, not by feel of the fullness of our bellies.

According to numerous studies, we feel full because of the amount or volume of the food we eat, not by calories. And we tend to eat the same volume of food every time we sit down for a meal.  Therefore, as long as the volume look the same even with calories reduced, we would remain satisfied.  This particular study was done by Dr. Rolls at the Center for Behavioral Nutrition at Penn State where a quarter pound burger was made so that it was the same size as a half pound burger by adding more lettuce, tomatoes and onions and not squishing it down.  People who ate the quarter pound burger would feel full despite the lower amount of calories.

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Suggested solution:  Pre-plate your food meaning you put everything you want to eat on a plate before eating.  The research found that people eat 14% less when food was pre-plated rather than taking smaller amounts and return for seconds.  This is actually news to me as I’m guilty of going back for seconds or sometimes even thirds because I put a small amount of food on my plate.

Increasing the variety of food increases how much everyone eats

Whether you hit up a buffet restaurant or go to a potluck party, the more types of food leads you to eat more.  Blame it on our brains!  By the mere thought of having more food available, we also put more food on our plate.  Part of it is also due to “sensory specific satiety” effect on taste buds making the first taste of any food always the best, with the second and third bite it’s a little less tasty.  Therefore, if a variety of flavors are available, people are likely to have the other flavors too.  This was examined at Penn State by offering people three flavors of yogurt where they had an avg of 23% more than if offered only one flavor.

Suggested solution:  Only have two items on the plate at any one time.  If you’re still hungry, you can get more. Studies prove less variety on the plate can slow you down so you end up eating less.  I plan to try this strategy the next time I go to a potluck party.  I know it will be difficult since I want to have a taste of everything in sight.  Hmmm, so if I were to ‘pre-plate’ my food, I would have to choose only two items?…

Even when we’re not hungry, distractions make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat

A poll from 1,521 people revealed the following activities while eating their meals:
91% watch TV
62% are sometimes or often too busy to sit down
35% eat at their desk while they work
25% eat while driving
When you’re not focused solely on eating, we are more likely to overeat.

Suggested solution:  Only eat on a table in your kitchen or dining room.  The trouble nowadays is that TVs are conveniently located where it can be seen from the kitchen and dining room, hence the rule of ‘No TV during mealtimes (to include other screen devices)’ may be better.   Simply sit down and be present with the meal you’re eating.

The convenience of a food determines whether we will eat it or not

If it takes too long to prepare or if it’s hard to obtain, the less we will eat a specific type of food.  Human behavior prefers convenience hence we look to easy prepared meals, packaged foods and fast foods particularly when we are crunched on time.  In one experiment, a bowl of chocolates were rotated in three different locations in a secretary’s office: one week was on her desk, next week was inside her drawer, and the final week was on a file cabinet six feet away from her desk.  The result?  On her desk, she had 9 pieces. Inside her drawer, she had 6 and away from her desk, she had 4.

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Suggested solution:  Make it more of a hassle to overeat by placing tempting food in places that are more difficult to reach i.e. the highest shelf in your cupboard.  What’s better is to not buy the type of food you know would cause you to overeat.

Looking at a specific food causes us to think more about it and want to eat it

What’s even more intriguing is that the food doesn’t even have to be in front of us.  If we visualize it in our head, we create a satiety for that specific food.  Has anyone ever brought girl scout cookies to your workplace?  When I worked in the Navy, we had girl scout cookies donated to our ship when we were deployed and even though I wasn’t hungry, the sight of the the mint cookies made me salivate and eventually I would end up having a few!

Suggested solution:  Turn it into an advantage where you place a plate of healthier food choices in sight, fruit and vegetables on your countertop or eye level in your refrigerator.

The suggested solutions are small adjustments to cut 100 to 200 calories by changing your environment and a few eating habits that won’t have you think about eating less.  “Mindless margin” was the term used to describe this calorie range  (100-200 cals), a small difference in calories that we don’t notice. Hence, if we mindlessly eat 100 calories more, we could mindlessly gain weight months later and we wonder how it happened in the first place.  On the other hand when we are aware of the influences that cause mindless eating, we can take action to mindlessly eat 100 calories less and lose weight.  More information and tools can be found on

It’s Friday Five with the topic of Food and Drinks.  I am linking up with the DC Trifecta ladies, Courtney at Eat Pray Run DC, Cynthia at You Signed up for What and Mar at Mar on the Run.