Are you an unconscious eater?
The fact that we can eat without thinking about it is one of the remarkable features of our brain. It’s a beautiful thing that we can accomplish simple mechanical processes like eating and walking on auto-pilot, saving our brain for other higher-order tasks like developing a business plan or teaching a class.
The only issue is that when we’re on auto-pilot, we can go about our day without a clue about what, why, or how much we eat. This lack of mind-body connection is often referred to as unconscious, mindless eating. And because our habits are so engrained, you may not even realize you’re an unconscious eater or emotional eater, as the two are often closely related.
You see, as babies we are born with the innate ability to regulate our intake; to listen to our bodies and eat exactly what and how much we need. However, as we grow up, outside factors such as food rules, the latest diet trends, social norms, life demands, and food marketing interfere with our ability to honor and nourish our bodies properly. Many adults lose touch with their body, learning to override their internal cues around hunger, fullness and satiety.
Here are 3 main reasons why we eat unconsciously and mindlessly detach from our body’s needs:
1. Distracted Dining
One reason we often eat unconsciously is because our thoughts are elsewhere. Hunger and fullness are more than physiological processes, they are also correlated with our awareness during meal times. Studies have repeatedly shown that people who eat while engaged in social interactions, watching television, or other tasks, eat more than those without distractions.
Not only do we tend to eat more when distracted, we also tend eat more later in the day, as distractions seem to dull our taste buds, and lessen our ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness. In addition, scientists also think that noises, particularly loud unpleasant ones, may distort the brain’s ability to gauge other senses.
For some, eliminating distractions, such as checking emails, browsing social media, reading or watching TV, while eating can be challenging. Start with a snack to practice mindful eating, focusing on the experience of eating and nothing else. Slowly chew your food and notice the taste, texture and mouthfeel of what you’re eating. Focus on how the taste, texture and flavor change as you continue to slowly chew and then swallow. What do you notice from bite to bite?
2. Eating on the Fly
You eat out of bags, containers, boxes or directly out of the fridge. You eat standing, picking, grabbing what’s in sight; You often snack throughout the day, never actually sitting down to eat a meal. When food is present, without sitting down to eat, we tend to mindlessly overeat without even realizing it. We must retrain our brain to recognize that it’s having a meal, and that means we must slow down and sit down when eating.
In fact, sitting down to eat can provide a range of health benefits. When we sit down to eat, we’re more likely to eat slower, and eating slower increases the likelihood that we eat less and feel satisfied. When we eat in a way that’s satisfying, we’re more likely to stop when full and not overeat, and less overeating reduces numerous health risks. See how beautifully those connections comes together?
Given our busy lives, sitting down for an hour-long lunch doesn’t always feel feasible. However, meals don’t have to take that long. Even if you only have 20 minutes, then take it and sit down. In actuality, however, most of us are simply used to piling things onto our to-do list because we think that defines productivity. We can all carve out 30 minutes somewhere in our day for lunch. So, take a break and savor your meal.
3. Using Food to Cope
Do you turn to food for comfort after a strong surge of emotions? For many, it’s how we’ve learned to cope and negate the experience of pain or intense emotions. Some may realize this habit doesn’t serve them well. They’re on autopilot, powering through the day, pushing aside feelings of anxiety, boredom, loneliness, sadness, or irritation to name a few. They may not even realize food becomes a way of dealing with a disrespectful manager, when they’re feeling irritated about a fight with a spouse, or to distract from a task that feels overwhelming to complete. Over time, this can lead one to lose touch with their bodily sensations and cues around hunger and fullness.
That makes it all the more critical to reconnect the feelings we have while we eat back to these physiological reactions. This helps us understand our “why” for eating, and why mindful eating is so powerful for understanding your body’s needs. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have ice cream to soothe a sorrow, but ask yourself how often this happens. Does it bring up feelings of guilt? If yes, break free from the automatic eating behaviors that aren’t serving us well.
We make over 200 food decisions each day, and many of us are on autopilot for the majority of them. Pause and pay more attention as you eat, tune in, and begin to listen for those whispers of what your body is trying to tell you. And if you're still struggling, I'm here to help with a range of options from virtual to in-person 1:1 coaching or group coaching. Consider joining the next Empowered Eating group workshop starting 10/24 and get the help you need.