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Mindless eating: Is it a habit or a choice and how do I stop?

It happens every time I go to the cinema. We grab a drink and some popcorn to take into the film and before the trailers are finished the popcorn is gone without me even realising it. It's like my hand is on autopilot dipping into the popcorn bucket. I guess you might call it mindless eating. 


It's just a habit 

We've all done it at some point. Whether it's at the cinema, reaching for snacks in the car or simply sitting on your sofa watching your favourite programme. Some call it mindless eating, some say it's just a habit but it's not just a random thing that just happens. When you think a little deeper about what is going on, the idea that it's just a habit can't be true.  


Why not?  

Ask yourself this:  

How many times have you heard someone say "oops, I accidentally ate that whole bag of carrots without realising" or "I just started snacking and before I knew it I'd eaten all the quinoa". In my experience, that has never happened to anyone and certainly not to me. 

If we just fall into those habits why do we never seem to fall into healthy eating habits by accident? The answer is that our accidental behaviours, while not consciously decided, are not as accidental as they seem. 


Unconscious decisions. 

It's hard to find a conclusive study on how much of our thinking is unconscious but I've read estimates of anywhere between 60% and 95%. Regardless of the actual number, it's true that most of our thinking is done on an unconscious level. That raises questions such as: 

  • What is driving our decision making? 
  • How many things do we choose not to eat?  
  • How easily do we choose not to eat them?  
  • Why do we not make those decisions so easily with other foods? 
Where did they all go?

Where did they all go?


So what's going on? 

You are making a decision on an unconscious level. I'll go into the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind in a future post (although Daniel Khaneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow is a great read on that if you can't wait) but we make decisions using both parts of our brain and it's the unconscious part that processes our values, beliefs and emotions which is running the show here. 

Put simply habits are well-used choices that our brains think we should be using.  

There's an emotional need that needs addressing, or perhaps there was in the past, and we came up with mindless eating to deal with it. We came up with a strategy that gave us what we needed and once we learnt that it worked we decided to keep using it every time we experience a similar situation. This is where we switch to autopilot and deploy the same approach that has worked for us before. 

Now when I say we form these habits to address an emotional need I don't mean some Freudian childhood drama, it could simply be boredom, a lingering sense of dissatisfaction or feeling the need for a 'treat' or 'pick me up'. These may be experienced at a very low level but they are emotional needs that need meeting all the same. While it makes no logical sense, to the unconscious part of your brain mindless eating is a good solution. 


How do I stop eating mindlessly? 

You can't unlearn this strategy that you developed over time but you can choose not to use it anymore. The questions to ask yourself are: 

  • What is the purpose of this unconscious behaviour?  
  • Is it still an appropriate way to deal with the situation? 
  • Is it working for you? 


Here are some tips on how to stop the mindless eating habit

1) Be aware: I wasn't even aware of half the stuff I did habitually before I did a diet. Only when popcorn at the cinema or sweets in the car were off the table, I realised how little I needed and wanted either. When do you eat mindlessly?

2) Notice what's going on: What are you feeling when you eat something out of habit? What's going on? Where are you? When do you do this? Who are you with? 

3) Find the purpose: You've made an unconscious decision for a reason. Ask yourself what's good about your habit? Even if there's no logical reason there is a benefit. For this just ask yourself the answer and go with the first thing that pops into your head. Is it about comfort, a treat, to feel good, release, boredom, control???? These are all great clues-explore what they are all about. 

4) Address the actual issue: If it's rebellion, deal with that. Is it about control? Deal with that. Once the need is met the urge goes away. 

5) Replace it with a new habit: Studies show that if you want to stop a habit it's useful to replace it with another, more helpful one. When we decide to stop doing something our brains will default back to what they already know if we don't have a better approach in place. 


Does that help?  What do you think?

If you have a habitual eating behaviour and you're struggling to identify why not leave your thoughts or questions on the Slim Thinking Facebook Group (if you're aren't already a member just request to join and you will be added).


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