Mindless eating is always trotted out as a significant factor in the increasing incidence of obesity. If we only paid attention to what we are eating, perhaps we would eat more 1) healthily and 2) frugally. We would never eat potato chips, butter-drenched popcorn, French fries, peanuts, M & M’s and nachos or, if we did, we would notice every peanut or M & M going into our mouths and would stop after eating only one or two (in our dreams, perhaps). We never would eat everything on our plates, unless the portion size was so small we noticed its reduced size. When served the typical overly large serving, we would carefully portion out the amount we should be eating and leave the rest, or eat it at another meal.
But who eats this way? Probably people during the early stages of a diet, or after bariatric surgery when they are left with a tiny stomach. Restaurant reviewers pay attention to what they are eating, as do judges on televised competitive cooking shows or at state fairs tasting pies. Of course, pathological food restrictors are extremely mindful of what they put in their mouths (three slices of apple, two leaves of lettuce), as are toddlers who chase cereal bits around the trays on their strollers. Picky eaters notice what they are eating in order not to risk putting anything in their mouths that is distasteful or has unacceptable mouth feel. But once they remove the offending food from their plates, they eat as mindlessly as the rest of us.
Stress is a significant trigger for mindless eating and is often cited as an obstacle to weight loss or its maintenance. Often the eating is so unnoticed that only the empty ice cream container or bag of chips signals that eating has actually occurred.
Some studies suggest that chewing and not the swallowing of food is what decreases stress. Supposedly the repetitive motion of chewing produces a decrease in physiological markers of stress such as blood cortisol levels. (“Mastication as a Stress-Coping Behavior,” Kubo K, Iinuma M, and Chen H Biomed Res Int. 2015; 2015:876) Laboratory rats given wooden sticks to bite or chew will show lower levels of cortisol when stressed, than rats not allowed to chew. Humans may chew gum or gnaw on other objects (pencils, pipe stems, coffee stirrers, fingernails) when they are stressed and as with the rats, this chewing decreases levels of cortisol and other physiological indicators of stress. If chewing does easing worry and anxiety, then the chewed object should have few or no calories (for instance, gum or crushed ice).
Unfortunately, we usually swallow what we are consuming when stress-associated mindlessly eating. This, of course, may significantly affect our weight if the stress and the mindless eating are prolonged. But is mindless eating at a time of emotional distress all bad?
Recently, while dining with friends we had not seen for several weeks, we learned that the husband was scheduled for a medical test that would reveal whether his medical problem could be helped by a simple, safe procedure, or major surgery with considerable risks. We had ordered a variety of small dishes meant to be shared among us, including two types of pasta which were served in large bowls. One bowl of pasta happened to be set in front of the wife of the individual whose medical condition we were discussing. “I can’t believe I ate the entire bowl of pasta,” she exclaimed several minutes later when someone asked her to pass the now empty bowl. I didn’t mean to eat so much,” she said. “I didn’t even realize I was eating it!”
Mindless eating? Yes. Might it have been related to her worry and anxiety that her spouse might not survive the more drastic medical procedure? Probably. Did it help ease her emotional distress? Perhaps. Certainly the carbohydrate, the pasta, would have increased serotonin synthesis in her brain, and that, in turn, may have lessened her anxiety, helplessness at not being able to do anything but wait and worry, and maybe even increased her ability to cope with the unknown.
It wasn’t necessary for her to eat the entire bowl of pasta to ease her anxiety. Indeed, had she eaten a few skinny bread sticks, or a slice of crusty bread from the basket placed on the table as we sat down, she might have started to feel better before the pasta arrived. Once digested, the carbohydrate in the bread sticks would have initiated the physiological process leading to an elevation of her brain serotonin levels. The subsequent increase in serotonin activity and possible reduction in her anxiety and worry might have prevented her from consuming all the pasta without noticing what she was doing.
However, the mindless eating our friend experienced is not without some benefit in addition to an easing of her distress. It can be regarded as an early warning of her vulnerability to eating uncontrollably in order to feel better. Our friend should be asking herself: “ Why did I eat all that food without noticing? Am I using food to block out my emotional pain? Is it working?”
Positive answers do not mean that mindless eating should be continued. Rather, it should be replaced by mindful eating. It is not necessary to eat large quantities of carbohydrates to experience relief from stress. The stressed eater need consume only about 30 grams of a fat-free carbohydrate (i.e. rice crackers or oatmeal) that contains no more than 4-5 grams of protein to bring about an increase in serotonin and a decrease in stress. (“Brain serotonin content: Physiological regulation by plasma neutral amino acids,” Fernstrom, J. and Wurtman, R. Science, 1972; 178:414-416). Eaten as a snack, or indeed in a meal, once the carbohydrate is digested, the increase in serotonin should bring about some emotional relief.
Stress happens to all of us, and usually when we are not prepared. A bowl of pasta or a few breadsticks is not going to take away the cause or offer a solution. But at least these carbohydrates may take the edge off of our emotional pain, and make the problem a little more bearable.