Warning: This article will make you fatter if you’re eating as you read it… Read on to find out why and how you can avoid this trap.
If only we could lose weight on autopilot… automate our weightloss. Yet too many of us go to the other extreme of automated diets and eat mindlessly. We don’t even notice what we’re doing; did you know that watching TV while eating can make you overeat by up to 28%?
When we’re dragged into visual stories, e.g. watching TV, our bodies crave food we wouldn’t usually want: chips, chocolates and other bad treats. I’ve yet to meet a person who wants to gnaw on celery stalks while watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
My point is that our environment and, what I call, habit triggers (such as watching TV), shape our habits. And if we don’t pay attention, they’ll shape our habits to be bad.
As you’d assume, TV isn’t the only cause of mindless eating habits. There are tonnes of other factors that affect how you eat: from the shape, size and colour of your plate, to the social context of the meal. There’s no way you can lose or maintain weight until you understand these factors and know the strategies to beat them.
I picked out the top strategies from the excellent (though filler-heavy) book Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink. Here’s what you can implement today to improve your eating habits for weightloss:
1. Size does matter…
The bigger the plate or the bowl you’re eating from, the more you will (over)eat. For starters, don’t plate up more food than you actually need or even want.
A study on moviegoers found that those who got a large box of popcorn ate 53% more popcorn than those who got medium-size boxes of popcorn. This 53% equates to at least 173 kcal, which is roughly the equivalent of a medium sized sandwich. Another study done on ice-cream lovers had similar results. Those with large bowls ate 31% more ice cream on average compared to those who were using smaller bowls. The difference is again around 200 kcal, or a medium size sandwich.
Let’s not forget about drinks either! Other than water, most drinks have some caloric and macro content. But once again the container is what makes the difference in consumption. One study found that drinking from short and wide glasses leads to consuming 19% more of the drink. Meanwhile, taller and thinner glasses would lead to less consumption while leaving the consumer just as satisfied.
So the next time you eat:
Choose small plates and bowls and go for thin and tall glasses.
2. The less variety, the better
I’ve talked about the 4-5 ingredient rule in various articles and Instagram stories. This rule helps me keep my meals simple to make yet covering all the bases from a health & nutrition standpoint. Eating by this rule is an easy way to ensure steady weight management.
The opposite of this rule is variety and, what is called, the paradox of choice. Sometimes you’ll feel paralysed by the amount of choices, other times the variety will make you buy or consume more. You’ll pick stuff you might not want or need, just for the fear of missing out.
Less variety is also why diets that restrict carbohydrates yield great results. It’s not just about stabilising hormones, avoiding inflammation and so on. What also makes the difference is that your choice of produce is suddenly narrower. There’s less choice and what’s there is the good stuff: veggies, nuts, meat, dietary fats. No highly processed grains or sugar-rich products.
Not convinced yet? Imagine that instead of choosing between 60 products, you could choose from only 20 to eat. You would get bored eventually and start eating less. A study done at Penn State lead by Dr. Barbara Rolls found that if people were offered 3 yogurt flavours they would eat 23% more than when offered just one flavour.
So the next time you eat:
Try to practice the 4-5 ingredient rule to keep your meals simple. To achieve this, limit your grocery purchases to absolute essentials. Here’s an example fat-burning yet simple meal: chicken breast, leafy salad, olive oil, tomatoes and olives.
3. See it before you eat it
The first part to this strategy is to always pre-plate the food you’ll eat. Don’t bring the full cooking pots to the table. Pre-plating your food means:
- No seconds and thirds
- No refills
- No starters or pre-eating
- No deserts or surprise extras
- Yes to 1 plate – 1 meal.
If you noticed your own habits while eating in or out, you might have done a few trips to the buffet table or indulged in multi-entry menus. That’s a main cause of weight gain. It’s enough to add just a tablespoon of pasta for it to accumulate into 20 pounds over the course of a couple of years. It’s essential that you limit yourself.
This then leads to second part of the strategy: reducing your portion by 20%. Some people stop eating when they start feeling full. Most of us however only stop when our plate is empty at which point we are usually too full. The gab between these two states (of being just short of full and being too full) can be big or small. The smart approach to eating is to remove 20% of food from your plate before you start eating.
If you stick with the 1-meal strategy and pre-plating your food, you will grow content with it. Indeed, reducing your portion by 20% won’t leave you starving. Studies show that people feel like missing out only when their portion is reduced by more than 30%. These 20% are usually called the mindless margin. It reduces your calorie intake by 100-200 kcal which is just enough to not feel deprived yet it’s enough to help you lose weight over a period of time or maintain it.
So the next time you eat:
Pre-plate your food. And reduce your portion size by 20% (or replace 20% with more vegetables)
4. Beware of social eating
“Birds of a feather, eat together”
By social eating I mean gatherings with colleagues, family or friends. As social animals we quickly adapt to mimic people in our vicinity. For example if the alpha of the pack eats candies – you are very likely to do the same and vice versa. Many high performers thus note that you need to choose your peers and the inner circle friends very carefully. In the end you will certainly become an average of the 5 closest people you know. Period.
This includes your eating habits. If you struggle with portions, you may want to eat alone. As unappealing as that may sound, each extra person at the table increases your caloric intake by 10% on average. If you eat with family or friends, you will almost certainly eat more (or too much). Just remember Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners…. I’ve yet to meet a person who gets through big family events without overeating. I don’t.
I’m not saying you should quit attending socials. What I’m saying is how important it is for you to understand how social dynamics can affect your (eating) behaviours.
Another thing Wansink warns against is buying produce in bulk. Things such as cereal, milk, pasta, rice, etc. You might think you’re saving money in the short-term but this book shows evidence that people who buy food in big quantities also tend to eat 30% more food than those who choose smaller packets. Much like the previous strategy, the less food you expose yourself to, the less you will eat.
If you’re a dedicated bulk buyer, you don’t have to quit this habit completely. Just be smarter about it by repackaging those bulk-purchase packs into smaller containers. Then use them one at a time while leaving the rest out of sight.
Cooking in bulk is another danger if we treat our leftovers as a snack rather than a full meal. People tend to treat them as side dish, since they generally don’t want to eat the same food every day. So these leftovers end up being additional calories which are often also made of lower-grade macronutrients, such as cabohydrates and sugars. The solution here is to either avoid leftovers all together (cook less) or cook enough to make leftovers sufficient enough to be considered a meal.
So the next time you’re grocery shopping:
It’s okay to buy in bulk, but as soon as you get home split the big packs into smaller containers. Treat leftovers as meals, not side dishes. Furthermore realise how habits transfer from person to person – that’s why mutual effort from everyone in the household can lead to greatest results.
5. The time to eat is for eating only
This article will make you fatter if you are eating while reading it.
This strategy stands for mindless re-scripting of our day-to-day eating habits. We do a dozen things while eating:
- Watching TV
- Browsing our phones
- Reading magazines etc.
For example people who watch TV (in general) tend to be more overweight than those who do not. It doesn’t matter what demographics the person belongs to, what channel or TV show they watch. They eat more, period, than those who focus on just eating. When we eat while distracted, we eat more and for longer, snack more, … in short, we eat mindlessly.
The numbers behind this are crazily alarming. Reportedly anything from 11% to 28% more calories were consumed when people ate while performing other tasks. Other people can be a distraction as well, however as listed above, there are ways to still eat smart even in a social setting.
So the next time you eat:
Block out a slot of time without screens or any distractions. No multitasking!
There’s many more insights from Mindless Eating that I’d love to share with you. Few diet books go beyond macros and diets to actually look a the psychology behind eating and our eating habits.
Yet Wansink has spent most of his career researching just that: in what ways our perception and psyche can impact what and how we eat.
For myself, knowing these simple strategies helps me not have to diet at all. For example, I always go for the smallest size plates, the tallest glasses and I pre-plate my food. When I’m eating out, I prefer to order starters and mains at the same time and not go for anything else. Finally, I do “sacrifice” 20% of each meal. It’s an unnoticeable way to allow for caloric deficit, which means you can lose weight consistently and gradually without any effort at all.