The Psychology of Food and Mindful Eating


One great way to understand eating behavior is to examine it at its most raw, unfiltered form: How do most animals eat? Let’s take my cat, Roxy. My husband rescued her from the streets where she was susceptible to famine and other evolutionary threats. She now lives in our safe, cushy home, where she is provided with cans of seafood every day. Yet, she still approaches each meal like a race for consumption. She competes with her sisters to eat as fast as she can, so that she can linger around and eat any of their leftovers! She eats fast until her bowl is completely bare. She often eats to the point of nausea.

Now, maybe we aren’t quite desperate as Roxy. However, like Roxy and other animals, we are still influenced by some primitive eating habits. Our brains are hard-wired to seek high caloric foods, foods with greater variety of flavor and scent (often an indication that food contains a diversity of nutrients), and we have a tendency to eat excessively. These habits are rooted in our earliest human experiences, which were also often characterized by scarcity of resources and even famine.  Although you may have never had a personal experience or conscious memory of starvation, your genes still carry these impressions.

Consuming so much food that we feel painfully stuffed at a gathering or potluck is a predictably human response to being surrounded by so many options for high calorie, salty, sweet, and diverse food options. So, how can we protect ourselves from these mindless habits that can sometimes overwhelm us?

Check out these scientifically based suggestions to use psychology as a tool for wellness and mindful eating:

·      Go in with a plan or intention. Most people wait until they sit down to eat before making any decisions. By this time, we might be really hungry and tempted to opt for a huge portion or really high calorie meal. If we are going out to eat, we might be persuaded to make decisions based on the social pressures of those around us. If your friend asks you “Hey do you want to split the nachos?” ... how hard is it to refuse that offer?! We might also be swayed by marketing, like the delicious smells, plating, and descriptions of our favorite foods on the menu. Personally, there will always be a part of me that is tempted by any combination of carbs and cheese: mac and cheese, grilled cheese, loaded French fries, pizza, etc. So, it’s always a good practice to check in with yourself, before you sit down to eat. Ask yourself: What would I like to experience from this meal? Do I want to indulge and if so, where is my limit? Am I planning to drink tonight? If so, how many glasses of wine would I like to consume?

·      Declare your plan. It may also help to just let your friends know so that they can support you in sticking to your goals. “Hey guys, I’m really trying not to drink tonight.” We all know that things don’t always go according to plan. That is ok, because we are only human. However, by beginning with a plan or intention, we are less likely to be distracted by external factors. When we share our plan, we are enlisting the support of our friends to help us adhere to our goals. 

·      Have a backup plan. Let’s say you go into a company potluck with the best of intentions: salads, water, no sweets. But, you arrive after a grueling workday and find your favorite comfort foods and your favorite people gathered around them. Perhaps, you might have a backup plan.  For example “If I plan to indulge, I will only grab a small plate.” You might even plan to take small breaks from eating, or set a goal to consume a glass of water in between each serving. In this way, can you can still have a little bit of structure and organization, even when you feel like indulging. 

 ·      Pay attention to the consequences.  If you do cross the line, eating too much, eating poorly, or drinking to excess, try to pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Begin to take notice of how your moods, thoughts, and energy levels are affected by what you put in your body. For example, if you spend an entire day drinking only coffee and wine (no water), notice how this might affect the way your skin looks and feels, and any other symptoms of your dehydration, like migraines or headaches, fatigue, and your cravings/thirst.

 ·      Create a ritual around eating.  It’s common in many cultures to say a prayer before eating. Many people have other basic little rituals, like shaking a sugar packet, or swirling wine in the glass before taking a sip. Recent studies find that practicing little rituals around food can actually enhance your experience of the flavor of food [1]. So, whenever possible, avoid eating in the car or while multitasking. Take time to pause and give thanks before you eat, or maybe light a candle. Pay extra care to create an environment that will allow you to fully enjoy your food.

 ·      Keep it simple: Less variety.  We’ve all experienced buffets or potlucks where we find so many options for food that we eat way more than we need to. Research finds that people eat less and report being satiated (feeling “full”) more quickly when there is less variety [2,3]. Perhaps you can develop a tactic to curate your plate when you are faced with a lot of variety. Stick to a theme or decide on a system in advance (e.g., 70-80% veggies, 30-20% other). If your friend is eager for you to try their yummy homemade creation at the potluck, you can still go for it but opt for a smaller spoonful.

 ·      Small portions! So much of our eating experience is visual. Much like Roxy the cat, we tend to eat until the plate is clean. This is a visual cue that we are finished with our food [4]. One simple way to prevent from excessive eating is to choose smaller plates. Most plates at restaurants carry portions big enough for 2 or 3. When you go to a restaurant, ask for a smaller appetizer plate to eat from, or better yet, ask for a “to go” container and place half of your food in the container, before you even begin to eat! This will help you have a natural opportunity to check in and make a more conscious decision about how much more you want to consume (if any). This is also quite cost effective: you often end up making two meals for the price of one! 

·      Make the healthy stuff accessible, the decadent stuff harder to reach. It’s simple psychology. We live busy lives! When we come home after a busy day and we’re hungry, chances are we will opt for the easiest foods to prepare and consume. Therefore, it’s a really great idea to clean and cut veggies in advance and keep them handy for quick and easy consumption.  Conversely, make it harder to access the “treats.” My husband and I store some of our favorite guilty pleasures, like cookies or chips, in the garage. This way, they are less visible, less accessible, and we actually have to think before reaching into a bag of yummy snacks and finding ourselves half-way finished with it’s contents!

·      Savor. I hate the tone of guilt and shame in our language around food. If you absolutely love and cherish the experience of decadent foods, you should be able to enjoy them. Food is a vital part of life, it is one of the many ways we experience pleasure. That said, when you sit down to your favorite piece of cake, take your time to be fully present with it. Express your gratitude for it. Look at it, smell it, and really taste it. Let it roll around in your mouth.  Feel all of its textures on your tongue. Take your time! Don't watch T.V. or look at your phone while you eat. Let yourself experience every morsel with all of your senses. You will likely find that by slowing down and approaching food in a more mindful way, you can be satisfied with a more modest serving [5]. Eat, enjoy, and be grateful. 

1.     Vohs, K. D., Wang, Y., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Rituals enhance consumption. Psychological Science24, 1714-1721.

2.     Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition24, 455-479.

3.     Raynor, H. A., Niemeier, H. M., & Wing, R. R. (2006). Effect of limiting snack food variety on long-term sensory-specific satiety and monotony during obesity treatment. Eating Behaviors7, 1-14.

4.     Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity13, 93-100.

5.     Timmerman, G. M., & Brown, A. (2012). The effect of a mindful restaurant eating intervention on weight management in women. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior44, 22-28.