If I Don’t Pay Attention to What I am Eating, Will the Food Contain Calories?

“What do you usually eat on a typical day when you are not dieting?”

I often ask this question when meeting a weight-loss client for the first time. Although I write down the information, I know that it is rarely complete. It is very hard for any of us to recall everything we have eaten yesterday or a few days ago, especially food that is not consumed as part of a meal. Did we munch on the potato chips that came with the lunchtime sandwich? Did we pop a few nuts in our mouths when we saw the bowl on the coffee table? Did we taste the food we are making for dinner and perhaps do more than just taste? Did we or didn’t we have a glass of wine with dinner, or was it two?

As hard as it is to remember what we ate it is even harder to remember how much. Few of us visually measure the size of the entrée put in front of us in a restaurant, or notice the quantity of food we eat at home. Was the chicken 4 ounces or 6? Was the rice a half a cup or two cups? How big was that piece of blueberry pie? And sometimes our best intentions to eat only a small part of what is put in front of us get lost when our attention is directed elsewhere while we are eating. I remember seeing a couple aghast at the size of their meals when it was put down in front of them in a restaurant known for their supersized portions. But they consumed everything on their plates because their attention was diverted to an intense discussion they began as they started to eat. The faster they talked, the faster they ate, and I suspect they never noticed how much they were eating until their plates were empty.

Reading emails on one’s smartphone, watching a video on a laptop device, or texting with the non-fork containing hand also interferes knowing how much is being eaten. When attention is elsewhere, the act of eating becomes automatic. The fork moves from plate to mouth to plate again, and the eater may not notice how much is being eaten until the plate is empty. If an hour later the eater was asked what and how much was eaten, he or she might be able to give only vague details. Indeed, sometimes the eater denies that much was eaten at all. “I just tasted the food and left most of it,” he will claim when the reality is that there was nothing left on the plate when he finished the meal.
Unless we must keep track of our food intake for health and weight-loss reasons (for example, a diabetic keeping track of grams of carbohydrate), we usually give only perfunctory attention to what we are eating. But even if we forgot what we put in our mouths, our metabolism does not. A calorie we do not notice eating still counts as a calorie we have eaten.

This absent-minded eating can make it very hard to lose weight. The heavily advertised weight-loss programs that restrict all food intakes to packaged drinks, snacks, and meals delivered to your door make paying attention unnecessary because the meal choices are programmed to enable weight loss. But if you are on a weight-loss program that gives you choice of what, and to some extent, how much you are eating, then often the only way to keep track of what you are eating is “to keep track.” There are apps for this, along with the traditional paper and pen food diary. Some people are able to keep track of everything they eat (they also balance their checkbooks), sometimes for months, and they are usually successful in losing weight and keeping it off. But for the rest of humanity for whom even keeping track of today’s date is difficult, recording everything that is eaten becomes very tedious very fast.

People who have maintained an appropriate weight for many years often follow an unchanging menu for breakfast and lunch. They don’t have to pay attention to what they are eating because their meal choices never vary. They often have rules about what they will eat for dinner as well: limited alcohol intake, salads with dressing on the side, eating only half the restaurant portion or sharing an entrée, avoiding fried foods and dishes with thick sauces or melted cheese, or avoiding all carbohydrates or all fats.

Weight-loss programs that do not make it necessary to pay attention to what and how much is eaten because all the foods are pre-measured rarely offer effective advice on how to pay attention to what is being eaten after the diet is over. The concept doesn’t sell very well in television advertisements for people who just want to lose the weight, but it is critically important to do so.

Making rules that limit food choices may be the most effective method, but may turn eating into more of a chore than delight. One thing that helps is spending 20 seconds to look at what is on the plate before eating. In those 20 seconds you can decide what you will eat in its entirety, what you will avoid and what you will eat sparingly. Taking a picture with a cell phone so the calories can be figured out later is also useful. It also may give you an idea of whether you have eaten anything healthy that day. Mindless snacking is a caloric hazard. Dipping one’s hand into a bowl or bag of snacks like nuts, cookies, or chocolate almost always causes excess calories to be eaten without any memory of doing so.

Not paying attention to what you are eating has a price: you may not know but, alas, your clothes and scale will eventually know only too well.

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