Real Talk: Stop Relying on Willpower, Start Making Healthy Eating Easier

Have you ever watched a movie while eating a bowl of popcorn before realizing that you’ve emptied the bowl? Have you ever been waiting at the checkout of grocery store and added a few candies to you cart because they were convenient and easy to grab? Or, have you ever been served a huge meal at restaurant and finished every last bite before realizing you were overly full?

If you can relate to any of these situations, then you’re human! Our brains have a way of letting external cues trigger us to eat, or eat more, without us consciously making the choice. This is called mindless eating, a term coined by Brian Wansink. Unfortunately, food advertisements, restaurant portion sizes, the wide availability of convenience foods, and distractions like TV can make it easy for us to mindlessly overeat. A little mindless eating here and there is not a big deal, but habitually overeating and disregarding our hunger and fullness can lead to unintentional weight gain. Here are a few surprising findings from research:

  • People ate 28% more food when they watched a 60-minute show than those watching a 30-minute show in one study.
  • People ate 16% more cereal when given larger bowls compared to those given smaller bowls, based on this study.
  • People ate more when eating out somewhere with bright lights and loud noises, compared to a eating at a restaurant with dimmer lighting and softer music in this study.

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The most interesting part about mindless eating is that we make around 221 decisions about food daily, consciously and unconsciously. Two hundred twenty-one! Yet many of us blame ourselves for lack of self-control when it comes to our food choices. The truth is, willpower is overrated.

We cannot control the food industry, the media, or the wide availability of convenience and processed foods. But, here’s what we can do: (1) become more aware of how our environment impacts our eating habits, (2) make healthy foods easier and more convenient, and (3) limit the number of food decisions we have to make. The less we have to rely on self-control to make food choices, the better.

Here are some simple ways to shift mindless overeating to mindless better eating when you’re at home, at work, and on the go.

At Home…

Use Smaller Plates, Bowls, Cups, and Silverware

Serving meals on smaller plates or bowls gives the optical illusion that you’re being served more food because there’s less white space—our brains our easily fooled! Eating off of smaller dishes also forces you to check in with your hunger and fullness after eating to see if you’re actually hungry for another serving. This can be especially helpful for members of the Clean Plate Club, who rely on the plate size to dictate how much to eat.

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Pre-portion Snacks

Whether it’s popcorn, chips, or crackers, plate your snack before eating. This let’s you choose a reasonable portion for yourself before you start eating, so you’re hands are not reaching for the box or bag when you get distracted by the your TV, computer, or phone.

Adopt a Strategy for Sweets

For some people, having sweets out of reach and hidden in the cupboard is enough to keep them from regularly snacking on them mindlessly. For others, keeping sweets out of the house may be a better solution. Buy a single serving of your favorite treat when you’re in need of something sweet—split a dessert when eating out, buy a 4oz carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at the grocery store, or get a single cupcake at a local pastry shop. Since everyone is different, finding a way to handle sweets that works for you can make it easier to pass up temptations in the moment.

Make Fruit and Veggies Easy to Grab

When we’re hungry, we tend to grab the easiest thing we can find to munch on. If you recently had a meal, snacking on fruit or veggies can be a good option. Keep your refrigerator stocked with ready-to-eat veggies like carrots, sliced cucumbers, or sliced bell peppers, along with your favorite hummus or veggie dip. By leaving a clear container of veggies at eye-level in the fridge, this will be the first thing you see when you open the fridge. Also, try leaving a bowl of fruit on the counter or kitchen table so you can see it and grab a fruit before even getting to other snacks in the cabinet. Making fruit and veggies convenient is one of the strategies that Brian Wansink has found to be effective to encourage healthier snacking in his research.

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At Work or On the Go…

Keep a Water Bottle Close by

It’s easy to go the whole day without drinking more than a cup or two of water when you’re out and about. Don’t let it get that far! Dehydration can be a slippery slope, leaving you feeling tired (more likely to mindlessly eat) and hungry (since our brains can’t always differentiate between hunger and thirst). Whether you’re at work, in the car, or in class, keep a water bottle in your bag or on your desk where you can easily grab it. By making it visible, it’s also a reminder to sip it regularly. If you buy yourself a fancy re-usable water bottle, you may even be more motivated to carry it around to show it off!

Stock Up on Healthy, Portable Snacks

When you’re on the go, it can be easy to raid the nearest vending machine or head to the drive-thru to buy something quick to eat. That’s why I always keep my car, purse, and desk drawer stocked with snacks that will fill me up. Nuts, trail mix, apples, bananas, clementines, string cheese, and KIND bars are some of my favorites. By keeping healthy snacks on hand, you’ll be less hungry and less tempted to eat any the other convenience foods nearby. Plus, you’ll likely save money if you stop buying bags of chips for $1.50 each.

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Pack Lunch or Identify Healthy Fast Food Options

Packing your lunch ahead of time let’s you control the portion sizes and create a balanced meal that’s filling and satisfying. When packing meals isn’t realistic, do your research ahead of time to find a few fast-food options nearby where you can find healthy, filling meals. You’re likely to choose a healthier choice when you plan ahead than when you’re stomach is growling and you’re hangry. We don’t always care about the nutritional value of our foods when we get to that point… The struggle is real, and there’s even research to prove it.


Anywhere…

Unplug

Detach from your headphones, phone, computer and TV at meal times. By being fully present while eating, you can tune in to your hunger and fullness and actually appreciate the taste and flavor of your food without distractions.

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