Overeating is a problem for me. I’ll admit it. To this day, if not careful, I still struggle with eating too much. I’m not exactly referring to a binge day but more so mindless eating.
Mindless eating is when you eat without paying attention. For example, sitting on the couch with a bag of pretzels and grabbing handful after handful while watching TV; or grazing on crackers and cheese, bread, chocolate, or whatever while making dinner; or munching on a slice of cheese while preparing lunches for the next day. Sound familiar? It does to me. Been there many times. If you can’t remember what or how much you ate then, more than likely, you ate too much. That’s mindless eating.
In my opinion, mindless eating can sabotage a healthy lifestyle more than having a binge day. Why? Because mindless eating is intertwined with daily habits. Maybe you’ve grown accustomed to sitting on the couch every night with popcorn or pretzels. You never thought about the extra calories in that extra bite while making dinner. It’s quite possible you don’t even remember eating that piece of cheese. All those mindless extras could easily add 500+ calories a day without even thinking or trying.
When I started my weight loss journey 5+ years ago I was slapped in the face with the result of mindless eating. I couldn’t believe the extra calories I was consuming. It was no wonder I gained 60+ pounds over 10 years. I just ate without even thinking about it and those bites eventually caught up with me. So, it wasn’t binge eating or fast food that kept me from losing weight. It was my mindless eating.
Like I said, I still struggle with mindless eating but I’m better than I used to be. Truth be told, I didn’t just wake up one day and poof I had mindless eating under control. Nope, I needed to put systems in place to help. Systems is such a serious word, let’s say habits instead.
Here are 8 habits I put in place to stop (or at least control) mindless eating.
#1. Track food
The best way to stay accountable to food is to track everything. I know some people hate this, and find it tedious, but it’s the only way to be aware of the food you’re eating. I don’t think it necessary to be militant about tracking food the rest of your life but in the beginning, and when you fall off track, taking stock of the food you’re consuming can be very helpful in moving you back towards your weight loss goals.
I use My Fitness Pal to track food and exercise. There are other online food journals out there but My Fitness Pal is free and I like it. Many people succeed using Weight Watchers. Both are meant to teach proper portion sizes. Find what works for you and use it. Here’s a post on why I chose My Fitness Pal over Weight Watchers.
Tracking food helps you make a true educated decision before eating it. It stops you from sabotaging your hard work because of a mindless snack or extra bite. For example, someone brings donuts into work. You want one bad. Instead of just eating the donut you plug it into My Fitness Pal first and see that donut is 500 calories. If you decide to eat it at least now you know what you’re eating.
The key here is to track food BEFORE you eat it. This way, you can choose not to if it’s not worth the extra calories. This little tip has helped me in this situation many times. And let me just say, I can’t think of one time I felt regret NOT eating a donut. Instead, I felt happy I didn’t give into mindless eating and stayed on track.
Tracking food was exactly what I needed to remove the denial and get control back over my eating.
#2. Meal Plan
A meal plan is your food road map for the week. It tells you what to eat and when to eat it. By creating a meal plan you can plan out all your calories (or points) for the week. Some people only meal plan dinner but I recommend planning out every meal and snack. Remember if you don’t know what to eat then you don’t know and this will put you in the “hot zone” for mindless eating. Don’t let there be a question to what’s on the menu that week – have it planned out.
Keep it simple. Don’t think you need to plan a different meal for each day and time or get all fancy. Generally, I eat the same things for breakfast, lunch, and snacks and then switch dinners up. This makes it easy to plan and prep – I’ll get to meal prep next.
You can create a meal plan simply using pen and paper. That worked many years for me but didn’t come without issues. Taking the time to write out a grocery list was the first issue and throwing out my weekly meal plan was the second.
Today I use the website Plan to Eat which solves both problems. First, every meal plan (they call them menus) created in Plan to Eat can be saved so you don’t ever have to worry about losing it. This means it can be reused over and over again. Second, you can easily create and print out (or keep on your phone) a grocery list. Writing a grocery list is my least favorite part of meal planning so this tool was huge for me.
If you want to stick with old fashion pen and paper, and it works for you, then keep doing what you’re doing. If meal planning causes you to feel overwhelmed and nutso then give Plan to Eat a shot. You can use my link to get a 30-day free trial.
#3. Meal prep and portion food out ahead of time
In my opinion, this is one of the most important strategies to prevent mindless eating. A meal plan is only going to work if you make the food, right? Well, I can guarantee if I don’t prep my meals, or at least components of meals, ahead of time then we’ll be ordering pizza.
Essentially, meal prep means to prepare meals and snacks when you have the time (weekends) so you can eat healthy when time is limited (during the week). This alone will help to prevent mindless eating because the food on your meal plan is ready to eat.
I harp on meal prep a lot because I truly believe it can be a huge game changer for you. If you struggle eating healthy during the week, for whatever reason, then try to prep food ahead of time and see if that helps.
Here are some of meal prep posts I put together:
Meal Prep Like a Boss
#4. Keep food triggers or temptations out of the house
This one is huge for me. Like HUGE! I think it’s so important to save willpower for when you need to make choices outside your home. For example, if you’re going to the movies you can’t control the overabundance of popcorn and candy everywhere. So, if you’re trying to stay on track, and not give in to temptations, then you will need to dig deep into willpower.
You don’t want to practice that same type of willpower when in your own castle. We are human and sooner or later we’ll give in to the temptations that are staring us in the face.
My advice is to remove all triggers from your house. My big food triggers are pretzels, cheez it’s, and cheese. To this day, I can’t be around any of these foods without eating every last crumb. Other foods, like ice cream, I can keep in my house because I’m not a big ice cream person. But if you can’t resist it then get rid of it.
Know your food triggers and keep them away. This is where you need to stay disciplined, save willpower for the parties and movies.
#5. Have the right tools
Mindless eating happens when you’re not paying attention to portions and serving sizes. The best way to learn both is to start measuring and weighing the food you eat. Again, this might seem tedious but it’s important to understand what a servings size looks like. Remember if you don’t know then you don’t know.
The tools I recommend are:
All three of these tools will give you a better understanding of serving size and food portion. You’ll recognize that if you eat more than what’s measured then you’re eating too much.
#6. Set limits
My #1 habit to control late-night snacking is to not eat past 7pm. I wrote about it here. That is one of my top limits I set to control mindless eating. Back in the day I would sit on the couch with a HUGE bag of pretzels and watch TV for a couple hours. Looking back I easily ate 500 – possibly over 1000 calories in pretzels without even thinking about it. So not only do I practice all the habits I just mentioned I make sure not to eat past 7:00pm. This helps quite a bit.
Other limits can include setting times for meals. This is helpful because it trains your brain to only want or expect food at certain times. If you eat between those times then you can guarantee you’re eating mindless calories you didn’t plan for.
By setting limits you are creating structure in your day. This structure will lead to routine and ultimately settle as a new healthy habit.
#7. Drink Lots of Water
Water is a huge component to weight loss, more than I ever thought. Water keeps you hydrated, satisfied, and your system moving. Often, what’s mistaken for hunger is really your body saying it’s thirsty.
Personally, I find it difficult to drink 64 ounces of water a day. I tend to do better when I use my water bottle because then I can track the amount of water I’m drinking. This is my favorite water bottle on Amazon.
When I’m hydrated I feel focused and energized. To be honest, I didn’t realize staying hydrated played a role in that until I started drinking green smoothies and focusing on water. Before that I was tired a lot, sluggish, and had brain fog quite often. Prioritizing water prevents all of that.
I recommend keeping a water bottle with you all the time. The water is there to help with hydration but it also serves as a reminder not to mindless snack.
#8 Set reminders
When all else falls set a reminder in your calendar. I live by reminders! I have one set to pop up on my phone to remind me to stop eating at 7:00pm. I also have a reminder pop up at 6:00am reminding me to get to the gym. If I choose to ignore then I need to physically turn it off. But these simple reminders have been helpful many times over in keeping me focused on goals.
If you tend to mindless eat at 3:00pm then, on top of planning a healthy snack and prepping it ahead of time, I suggest setting a reminder to go off at 2:50pm reminding you to eat your snack.
I know this might seem a little over the top but if you struggle and can’t remember to eat your snack, or to stop eating, then something as simple as a phone reminder might help. Plus, it only takes 30 seconds to add it in so it’s really not that big of a deal.
Mindless eating happens when life is spent more in the “hot zone” than not. Each of these tips will bring organization, structure, and peace so you can focus on creating a healthier lifestyle that keeps you aware of the food you’re eating