Mindless Eating

The Basic Idea

Have you ever been snacking on a bag of chips as you’re working or watching TV and suddenly you reach into the bag to find it empty yet you don’t remember consuming that much food? If you have, then don’t feel bad because this phenomenon happens to more people than you think. The concept of mindless eating stems from psychological behaviours stimulated by a distracted brain and the repetition of a habitual behaviour.

The concept of mindless eating is the idea that the unconscious decisions we make about food can have profound effects on our diet and weight. In stands in contrast to mindful eating, which promotes behaviours such as eating slowly and without distraction, distinguishing between hunger and non-hunger triggers, and appreciating the smells and texture of your food. These mostly psychological behaviours could have a big impact in the way you consume food and in the long run, it could have impactful consequences on your health.

For example, binge eating can be a serious disorder requiring medical attention. But for most of us, it can happen occasionally during moments where we experience a personal high or low. During which, the act of eating has become a mindless act, and often done quickly. This can be problematic, since it takes your brain up to 20 minutes to realize you’re full. If you eat too fast, the fullness signal may not arrive until you have already eaten too much, leaving you not only physically uncomfortable, but mentally stressed at the amount of food you did not intend to consume.

There’s only one thing that’s strong enough to defeat the tyranny of the moment. Habit.

– Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

Key Terms

Disinhibition: The tendency to overeat in response to different stimuli, and can occur in a variety of circumstances such as when an individual is presented with an array of palatable foods or is under emotional distress.

Mindful Eating: Is an approach to food that focuses on individuals’ sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food. It has little to do with calories, carbohydrates, fat, or protein.

Interoceptive Awareness: The awareness of inner body sensations, involving the sensory process of receiving, accessing, and appraising internal bodily signals.

History

The term mindless eating was popularized in 2006 by Brian Wansink, a former American professor and researcher through his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Wansink, who worked in consumer behavior and marketing research, is the former executive director of the USDA‘s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) and conducted numerous experiments around food consumption during his time directing the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

In one of his defining papers, Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook, he attempts to show two key points. “First, we are aware of only a fraction of the food decisions we make. Second, we are either unaware of how our environment influences these decisions or we are unwilling to acknowledge it.”1 Through two studies, he set out to prove that people engage in mindless eating where they are not consciously aware of the effects of the environment on how much food or beverage they consume.

Though it is a relatively recent concept, a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this subject in conjunction with other health issues such as eating disorders, mental health, and overall well-being. It has also made its way onto informal blogs and promoted by health and medical professionals, even touted by Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing.2 With the rising emphasis on physical and mental health, more efforts are being invested in pursuing this niche in food research.

Consequences

This area of research into the psychology behind the decisions we make regarding food has jumped to the forefront of behaviour science today in part due to the rapidly changing lifestyles which emphasizes health and consciousness over both the mind and the body. In addition, today’s fast-paced and diverse society tempts people with an abundance of food choices. On top of that, distractions have shifted attention away from the actual act of eating toward our smartphones, laptops, and televisions. Thus, not being conscious of how and what we consume can lead to issues that affect an entire generation.

Currently, overeating is one of the most common unintentional health harming behaviors in westernized countries. Many studies have shown that the act of eating and the level of consciousness at which decisions are made are closely correlated in producing optimal, healthy results.3 The act of eating always entails a level of conscious decision, but as a highly conditioned “habit”, it is automatic and usually sensitive to emotional states. For example, low interoceptive awareness and neurobiological patterns of activity will result in compulsive and emotional eating -which we often refer to as binge eating.4 Thus, distracted eating, or mindless eating, over a period of time, caused by a low awareness in the decisions you’re making about the food in front of you, can have negative consequences on your physical and mental health.

In another light, when it comes to the science behind essentially manipulating our relationship with food, there is the inherent danger of misleading audiences or readers misconstruing results from certain experiments and modifying them to achieve their own health goals. In the saturated market of dieting tips and health blogs, it is easy to distort the methods intended for mindful eating and cause lasting harm to our mental and physical health. According to Dr. James Greenblatt, an eating disorder expert and chief medical officer of Walden Behavioral Care, mindful eating can be potentially dangerous. Greenblatt claims that “[m]indful eating clearly has a place in our treatment plans…[but that] many eating disorders reflect a severe neurochemical abnormality that needs to be addressed with biological interventions first, before adding other psychotherapeutic strategies and mindfulness.”5

It is then easy for those who suffer from an existing eating disorder to follow such mindful eating advice and inadvertently enter a vicious cycle trying to relieve their anxiety and dysphoria without seeking professional medical help. In other words, they are self-medicating using their eating habits -much like a drug user moderating his drug use to help his addiction.6 Severe eating disorders such as anorexia have been associated with an overproduction of dopamine that leads to anxiety, and the ability to do unpleasant things such as not eating. Although the root of some of these disorders do not stem from mindless eating, the narrative around mindful eating and the formation of eating habits to achieve or prevent certain results can induce irrational behaviour and averse results. Thus, it is more important as we are promoting mindful eating habits, that we are also aware of the negative externalities the literature may impart so as to help frame these discussions appropriately.

Controversies

In 2017, a large corpus of Wansink’s research faced scrutiny which led to several retractions and corrections and prompted an investigation by Cornell into the integrity of his work. In September 2018, Cornell determined that Wansink had committed scientific misconduct and removed him from all teaching and research positions. For over a year, the accuracy of Wansink’s research has been increasingly called into question, with five papers retracted (one of which was retracted twice), fourteen corrected, and over fifty others facing scrutiny.

This investigation was prompted after doubts were raised by James Heathers, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University in Boston, who called into question the veracity of the results of one of Wansink’s most famous works after a statistical reanalysis of data from the bottomless bowls study. The study was as follows. In 2005, Wansink co-authored a paper titled Bottomless Bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. In the experiment participants were seated at a table, each in front of a bowl of tomato soup. After eating as much as they wanted in twenty minutes, they were asked to rate, among other things, how much soup they thought they had consumed. The independent variable was that while half of the participants were seated in front of a normal soup bowl, the other two were served soup in bowls that were refilled through discrete tubing that ran through the table and into the bowls. The findings showed that people eating from the “bottomless” bowls consumed 73% more soup than those eating from normal bowls, but estimated that they ate 140.5 calories fewer than they actually ate. Wansink and his team concluded that although the participants given the self-refilling bowls ate significantly more soup, they were not aware of consuming the additional amount.7

Doubting the results, Heathers used a technique known as SPRITE (Sample Parameter Reconstruction via Iterative Techniques) to investigate whether the descriptive statistics reported in the paper could possibly exist given the setting and conditions of the experiment. These statistics include the number of data points, means and standard deviations. What he and other researchers eventually found was that Wansink had been “producing” his results through various unethical and incorrect methods.8 These problems included conclusions not supported by the data presented, data and figures duplicated across papers, incorrect statistical analyses, questionable data producing impossible values, and “p-hacking”. The latter method is the act of cherry picking results that are the most significant or interesting, and then adjusting your initial hypothesis -which is the opposite of the scientific method.9

In light of this investigation, Jean Fain, a psychotherapist affiliated with Harvard Medical School says that, “[Wansink’s tips] can be dangerous to people with diagnosable eating disorders, who, in following Wansink’s advice to a T, are more apt to ignore their internal experience of hunger and fullness, satisfaction and nourishment, and focus exclusively on externals, like plate and portion size.”10 It is important to note that while the specific results from Wansink’s studies don’t hold up, much of the qualitative methods he describes in his work to help you become more mindful eaters and the environmental factors causing mindless eating have been proven to be valid and supported by other research in the field.

Case Study

There have been many publications around the effectiveness of mindfulness practices as treatment for eating disorders which produced positive results. But after Wansink, the credibility of much of the research was questioned and the rise of its usage in popular culture did not further its legitimacy.

In 2014, Katterman and colleagues published a study in the journal Eating Behaviors which set out to evaluate a number of studies using similar methods to target similar eating issues. The goal was to determine which eating issues are more or less responsive to mindful eating techniques. The report focused on studies about binge eating, emotional eating, and non-disorder weight loss in which mindful techniques were the main manipulation. Across the 14 studies they included in their report, they included ones that mainly conducted methods such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based eating awareness training. The team’s conclusion was that such training programs were effective in decreasing binge eating and emotional eating but were not very effective as an intervention for weight loss.11

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