Is Mindless Eating Like a Dog Worrying a Bone?

One of our dinner guests, a thin older man who prided himself on his eating and exercise discipline, sat down next to a bowl of nuts and almost inhaled them. We were having cocktails before dinner, and as hostess I was paying more attention to whether there was a coaster under every glass and napkins next to the finger foods, more than to what our guest was eating. But his rapid almond-to-mouth movements caught my attention.

“Did you see how much Jake (not his real name) was eating?” my husband asked after everyone departed. “He is usually so deliberate and slow in his eating, but this evening he cleaned his plate almost before everyone had picked up his or her fork. “

We mused over his uncharacteristic behavior, and then one of us remembered a story he told later on in the evening about a possibly nasty legal situation he was facing with a neighbor.

“I don’t think he even knew what and how much he was eating,” I commented. “I suspect that if he had been asked what he had eaten for dinner, he would have no idea.“

Not paying attention to what, especially how much, we are eating is one of the unsolved causes of weight gain. Who has not munched on a sandwich or crunched baby carrots while staring at a cell phone? Peering at the screen while eating is so common that eventually restaurants will probably provide cell phone stands so the phone can be propped up while eating, thus relieving the necessity of eating with only one hand. However, the perils of attending to the cell phone screen rather than to your food on the plate is that everything on the plate is consumed (possibly even the toothpick holding the sandwich together) without the eater being aware of doing so. Have you ever eaten a large bag of popcorn in a movie theatre and found that your munching was faster or slower depending on what was on the screen in front of you? Your fingers were able to direct the popcorn to your mouth without much awareness of your part.

Psychologists and nutritionists tell us TO PAY ATTENTION to what we are eating. We are to look first at the food before biting into it and notice its texture, smell, and color, perhaps the same way we might look at a glass of wine. Then we are to chew slowly, savoring the release of flavors and how they change in the mouth. Finally we are allowed to swallow. I was at a workshop watching the facilitator demonstrate this with a strawberry. We all had several on our plates so we could practice along with her. One of the participants was so mesmerized by the slow motion consumption of the strawberry by the leader that she mindlessly munched on all the strawberries on her plate.

Of course, paying attention to what we are eating, and especially noticing when we are full so we don’t continue eating beyond fullness, is helpful in controlling our universal tendency to overeat.  But perhaps more important is noticing why we put our mouths on automatic pilot and eat and eat the way a dog gnaws and gnaws at a bone. The dog is probably not thinking much of anything except where the next bone might be coming from, but the automatic eater is, for sure, thinking of something other than the food.

Mindless eating should really be called “mind elsewhere” eating. Like the dog worrying a bone, or our dinner guest, the “mind elsewhere” eater is gnawing away at an unresolved, troublesome situation.  It is unlikely that the eating and the somewhat obsessive thinking will produce a solution at that moment, but is more likely to result in the consumption of excessive calories. (And, to my mild annoyance, probably no recollection of what the food tasted like.)

A dog owner will take away the bone when it is apparent that the dog should move on to something else.  As owners of our “elsewhere minds” we must take away our own bones. We must put away or move away from the food, set our forks down, determine how much we have already eaten, and halt the repetitive movement of either a utensil or a hand carrying food to the mouth.

Dogs usually sigh and then go to sleep when the bone is gone. We should learn from them. A few minutes of calmness, of allowing ourselves not to be consumed by the problem at hand, will bring our mind and our eating into harmony.  It will also bring the benefit of enjoying the food we are eating.

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