Do you scoff your food down? Has your meal disappeared before you can say “Abracadabra”? Do you have trouble remembering what you ate for breakfast this morning? You could be a victim of “mindless eating”!
When we repeat an action regularly and routinely, such as tying our shoelaces, driving to the office or having a snack when we get home from work our brain creates a neural pathway which is kind of like the putting a shortcut icon on the desktop of your computer rather than having to go through your files to find the document that you want. This neural pathway enables our body to undertake the action quickly on autopilot without having to stop and waste time and energy thinking about each step of the process. For example, cross your arms. Now cross them the other way, so that your other arm is on top. What happened? Most people find that when they cross their arms they do it quickly and easily, but when they need to cross their arms with the opposite arm on top, they really have to stop and think about how to achieve this simple task!
Neural pathways are great, and help us save time and energy doing a thousand routines that we undertake each day, however, if you have unhealthy eating habits that are on a neural pathway these habits can be hard to break.
How do I break unhealthy habits?
It is possible to break unhealthy habits by altering your neural pathway. To do this, you have to repeat the new, desired action over and over again until the new neural pathways are created.
Start by keeping a food diary
This helps you to become aware of the foods that you eat during the day which you may have otherwise eaten mindlessly. Jot down why you ate them and rate out of 10 how hungry you were before eating (10 being absolutely starving). Were you hungry? Did you eat them as you were out socialising? Or did you just eat out of habit?
Identify times when you eat mindlessly
Look back through your food diary. In what circumstances did you choose to eat something when you weren’t hungry? Common traps are opening the pantry as soon as you walk in the door, walking past the cafeteria or kitchenette at work, buying yourself a special treat every time you go to the supermarket or getting a cake with your morning coffee.
Redesign your eating habits
Identify the steps where you are going wrong, and what you need to do to fix them. Like looking in the street directory for a new route to drive home – it may take you a little longer the first few times, but soon, if you’ve chosen well, you’ll find that your new route is quicker and better. For example, if you mindlessly get home from work and have an unhealthy snack, do you need to create a new routine when you get home? Maybe you need to have a healthy snack on the way home from work, put your walking shoes on as soon as you get home and go out straight away for a walk….without opening the pantry door? Once you’ve decided on your new routine, do it over and over again until it becomes habit. It may be hard for a while, but soon it will become second nature.
Have you ever driven home, then wondered how you got there because your head is congested with solving the problems of the day? It’s a very different experience to going for a slow Sunday drive through the country marvelling at the rolling hills and animals outside your window. Soon you start to notice each bird, each tree, each flower.
Eating can be the same. Sometimes we inhale our food without tasting it. To really taste your food, you don’t need to eat more of it, you just need to eat mindfully! Smell it first. Cut off a little corner. Savour the flavour. Describe its taste. By eating mindfully, you will enjoy each meal more and be less likely to overeat or need to rely on high kilojoule, flavour-enhanced foods to satisfy you. Soon you will start to enjoy the variety of tastes, textures and smells of each different dish, each different spice, each different ingredient.
Often we scoff our food down so we can hurry onto the next task. You will feel much more satisfied and refreshed if you can eat like the Europeans. Take at least fifteen minutes to sit at the table to eat. Cut your food into small mouthfuls. Chew your food well. Imagine the mouthful slowly going down through your digestive system before taking the next mouthful. I guarantee that you’ll feel a lot more satisfied by your meal! Research shows that people who eat more slowly, are less likely to gain weight than those who eat quickly, so retrain yourself to savour your meals.
Eating mindfully takes practice, so don’t be hard on yourself if you find it difficult to break unhealthy habits. Talk to an Accredited Practising Dietitian for more strategies to help you be more mindful of your eating habits.
Author: Melanie McGrice is one of Australia’s best known dietitians. She is a highly respected author and health presenter on nutrition and dietary issues – and a lover of great food! Join her free nutrition and wellbeing network at www.melaniemcgrice.com.au or like her on Facebook www.facebook.com/MelanieMcGriceDietitian