If we had a miniature camera mounted on our wrist or forehead that recorded every time we put food in our mouths, we probably would be shocked at the number of times we eat each day. To be sure, meal eating is usually remembered even if we can’t recall what we had for breakfast or lunch yesterday, or what vegetable, if any, we ate with dinner. But when we nibble food we had no intention of eating, but ate anyway simply because it was there, we rarely remember doing so.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting with a group of women at a luncheon listening to a panel discussion. At the beginning of the discussion, a platter of bakery cookies on the table was untouched by my largely weight-conscious table companions. But as time and boredom increased, one by one, the women reached for and ate the cookies. When the speeches were over, the cookies were gone, and probably the memory of eating them gone as well.
This cookie consumption is an example of opportunistic eating—that is, the unplanned consumption of food just because it is available. Anyone who has a dog or cat knows that if a tasty morsel falls on the floor, the opportunity to eat it is seized by one’s pet. We humans do the same, although the food is usually in a bowl or platter, and not on the floor. My doctor’s office has a large glass bowl filled with wrapped chocolates on the counter in front of the receptionist. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to reach in and take one while checking in or out for an appointment. Supermarkets set up tables to offer tiny morsels of a product the food manufacturer wants the shopper to buy. The food is rarely refused; the area near the table is congested with shopping carts as people stop their shopping in order to sample this free food. A local ice cream shop announces a two-for-one ice cream cone sale on the anniversary of its opening. Pedestrians stop and go inside, even though before they saw the sign they had no intention of having ice cream. But who can pass up the opportunity to get a free ice cream cone? Leftovers from a farewell party are left on the counter of the office kitchen, and the next morning are quickly eaten by people coming in to make their morning coffee. They hadn’t planned on having sheet cake for breakfast, but it was there to be eaten.
All of us who have fallen prey to opportunistic eating are on, albeit temporarily, the See Food Diet (I see it, I eat it). But our degree of vulnerability differs. This has been tested in a study that under the guise of testing a new consumer product, offered chocolates to subjects who recently finished a meal and were not hungry. Not surprisingly, subjects with less self-control ate more than those who exerted some restraint over their food intake.
A similar study was done, again with chocolate, in which subjects were asked to eat chocolate until they were so full they could not eat anymore and then…they were given the chance to start eating again. Those who did had a higher BMI and on psychological tests had a greater degree of impulsivity.
Dieters and non-dieters alike fall prey to opportunistic eating. Often the act of eating is more of a reflex than a conscious act. We walk past a bowl of nuts or chips and, grabbing a handful, munch on the food without perceiving what we are doing. Our mind is on something else. Stopping for fried dough or a sausage and pepper roll while strolling through the street fair becomes part of the total experience, and may be remembered only if some intestinal discomfort occurs afterward. Finding a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk is memorable. Finding and then eating cookies left on a plate in the office kitchen is not.
Sometimes opportunistic eating takes the guise of being served larger portions than anticipated, especially in restaurants. Although some diners would view a soup tureen filled with pasta, or half a roasted chicken spread over a small hill of mashed potatoes, as cause for horror (“How can I possibly eat this? I’d better take most of it home; maybe someone will share it with me?”), others will justify eating the entire portion because of the opportunity to do so. There will be no guilt or attempt at self-restraint, because the humongous-size portion wasn’t requested, but came as a gift.
Tracking the unneeded calories from opportunistic eating is a challenge. If one is eating mindlessly, noticing and recording what is eaten is rarely done. Often the opportunistic eater is aware of having eaten more than intended only when on a scale.
Even though it is difficult, the only way to prevent weight from being gained or weight loss being slowed is to avoid, totally, opportunistic eating. “Out of sight, out of mouth” works to remove temptation at home and in the workplace. Removing bowls of nuts or candy or plates of cookies or leftover cake or pie from sight prevents them from being eaten. But it is impossible to remove entirely from our environment the presence of food and the spontaneous chance to eat it. Thus, the only other recourse is to use self-discipline. It is hard, but there are many who exert this type of self-discipline all the time. They may need to avoid foods that might contain allergens, or are not allowed for medical, religious, or dietary reasons.
Avoiding opportunistic eating avoids eater’s remorse. You may not have noticed or remembered what you ate, but you can be sure the scale does.
“Unintentional eating. What determines Goal-incongruent chocolate consumption?” Allan J, Johnston M, Campbell N, Appetite 2010, 54: 422-425.
“Psychological predictors of opportunistic snacking in the absence of hunger,” Fay S, White M, Finlayson G, and King N, Eat Behav 2015; 18: 156-159.