You yank your gaze from Jane the Virgin to discover a now-empty pint of ice cream. Or you scroll through your Facebook feed while shoveling popcorn into your mouth. Anytime your brain is elsewhere when food is sitting in front of you, you’re munching mindlessly—a straight path to going overboard on calories. “I call this ‘zombie eating,'” says Susan Albers, PsyD, author of Eating Mindfully. “It’s eating when we’re not tuned-in.” Nibble while distracted and you’re more likely to miss out on internal hunger cues and consume more than your body actually needs. Research shows that giving your plate your entire focus, on the other hand, can help with weight loss and lower your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So how do you do that in the real (read: real busy) world? Here’s how to avoid the biggest threats to wide-awake eating.
A chick flick and cheese plate. Scandal and takeout. Parking yourself in front of the TV with a spread is a recipe for dead-eyed overeating. Americans watch, on average, more than three hours of TV a day, a new survey found, and a number of studies have shown that our screen time increases high-calorie snacking. “When we’re watching TV, that gets our attention,” explains Michelle May, MD, creator of AmIHungry.com. “We’re not tasting. We’re not enjoying. We’re not aware of how full we are.”
Tune in: The simplest and most effective steps you can take are turning off the TV when you’re eating and separating your dining area from your media space. (Commercials can also spark thoughts of food, notes Albers.) Setting up an environment that reminds you you’re sitting down to a meal—rather than routinely settling on the couch for TV dinnertime—helps you register each mouthful, she adds. Even when you order takeout, put out place mats, remove food from to-go containers, and use actual plates.
Stashing trail mix and granola bars within arm’s reach while you plug away at work can make you go calorie crazy, usually without even noticing. In one study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, researchers gave office workers all the chocolate they could eat for a month. When it was on their desks, they ended up downing about 125 calories’ worth more a day than when it was in a separate room. “You could say, ‘Big deal,’ but over the course of a year, that translates to 8 or 9 pounds,” says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Food and Brand Lab.
Tune in: Store all your office eats at least 6 feet away; the distance gives you a chance to consider whether you’re hungry enough for the treat, explains Wansink, and prevents your hands from lingering in a snack drawer while you’re all-consumed by work. (The trick can also help you eat about 60 percent fewer calories, according to another Food and Brand Lab study.)
It’s all too easy to fall deep into conversation over a pasta dinner with your significant other or laugh with girlfriends over a table of appetizers at happy hour. We get distracted, the food tastes good, and we pack it in while our mouths motor on. Then “often what happens is we think, ‘I’ve already blown it. I might as well keep eating and drinking. I’ll go back on my diet tomorrow,'” says Dr. May.
Tune in: When you sit down to a meal, first assess how hungry you are, then create a so-called speed bump. “You can make it a visual cue, like dividing your sandwich in half, or simply envision a halfway point,” explains Dr. May. “When you hit your speed bump, pause and check back in by asking yourself whether you’re enjoying your food and whether you’re full.” Dr. May also suggests putting your fork down after each bite so you can distinguish between talk time and chew time. “It reminds you to focus on the conversation before picking up your fork again,” she says.
We often think we can’t spare the extra minutes to take a real lunch hour. But inhaling meals at your desk is deadly for your waistline and your work. First, it may set up a Pavlovian response, in which you crave food whenever you’re working, points out Dr. May: “If I eat while I’m answering email, for example, simply being in front of my computer can make me want to eat.” You can also better focus on your work if you allow yourself brief respites, research shows—even though you may think you have Too. Much. To. Do. “This is the myth of multitasking,” explains Dr. May. “The more you hear yourself repeating the phrase ‘I don’t have time,’ the more you need a break.”
Tune in: On days when you can’t escape outside or go the cafeteria, find a table separate from your work area. Not an option? Turn your chair away so you can’t see your open screen and to-do pile. Needless to say, power off anything that beeps, buzzes, or dings. Then give yourself at least one to two minutes of true focus in order to set the tone for the rest of the meal, adds Albers.
If you find yourself whizzing through the drive-through for your favorite coffee drink or slurping down a green juice or smoothie behind the wheel, you may be guilty of drinking on autopilot. And because you’re not actively chewing something, it’s even easier to lose focus: “When I ask people what they ate that day, they don’t think about what they drank,” observes Laura Ligos, RD, creator of TheSassyDietitian.com. Coffee with cream and sugar, an Arnold Palmer, or a smoothie often gets left off the list—yet all can add up over time. Most mindless drinking happens in the car as a way to deal with boredom, traffic, or an overextended schedule, says Evelyn Tribole, RDN, co-author of Intuitive Eating. Plus, “if they didn’t make the beverage or look at the label, people don’t realize that the drink could be loaded with sugar,” adds Ligos.
Tune in: Getting into the driver’s seat? Default to a healthy zero- or low-calorie beverage, such as water, iced black coffee, or unsweetened tea. If you grab a meal-like option (that fancy frappé or protein shake), “wait and actually watch yourself drink it and recognize whether you’re full or not full yet,” says Ligos—even if that means pulling into a parking lot and taking two minutes to enjoy the first sips in the here and now.
Five techniques the pros use to erase distraction and fully connect with their food whenever they sit down to savor a meal.
“I say a word of thanks. It alters your mood and puts you in the right frame of mind.” —Brian Wansink, PhD
“Eating is about feeling good, not being good. So I set the intention that I want to feel better when I’m done eating than I did when I started. That’s going to affect every decision I make, from how much food I take to what food I take.” —Michelle May, MD
“I really look at the first bite. I was just at a conference, and there was this huge display of cookies. It would have been so easy to grab one and walk away, but I really looked and noticed they seemed hard and dry, so I passed right on by. That pause helps me decide whether I actually want it.” —Susan Albers, PsyD
“I take five slow breaths, making the exhale longer than the inhale. The exhale is connected to the parasympathetic response. It’s the part of our body that helps us digest food. You can try inhaling for four counts and exhaling for six counts.” —Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine and author of Meditate Your Weight
“I pause and reflect on where the food came from and all the hands that prepared it, which brings up a natural feeling of gratitude.” —Judson Brewer, MD