Mindless eating can be defined as eating food without paying adequate attention to what and how much is being eaten.
Mindless eating can also be influenced by environmental factors such as friends and family members, the size of plates and glasses, big versus small serving bowls and spoons, and even lighting and music.1 Eating mindlessly undermines weight management efforts by causing people to eat eating too much, making poor food choices, and losing touch with feelings of hunger and fullness.
The Effects of Serving Size
Researchers have shown that people eat more food when it is presented in large bowls or plates. In one study, moviegoers were served free popcorn in large or extra-large containers.2 Additionally, the popcorn was either fresh or stale. People ate 45 percent more fresh popcorn and 34 percent more stale popcorn from the extra-large container that from the large container, and they did not realize it. In other studies, individuals who were served larger meal portions ate more food and calories than when portions were smaller.3,4,5
Optical Illusions Affect Portion Size
Visual cues are heavily relied upon to make decisions around how much to eat and drink. A tall skinny glass looks fuller than a short, wide one, so more tends to be poured into a shorter glass.1 Portions that are the same size will look smaller on a large plate than on a smaller one,6 leading to larger portions being served when a plate size is bigger. Putting food on a small plate has the opposite effect; the portion looks larger and for many, the meal is over when the plate or bowl is empty so making these small changes can be helpful for weight management efforts.
But what happens if the bowl never is empty? Researchers who created trick bowls that refilled themselves from a hidden tube at the bottom found that study participants ate 73 percent more soup and did not know they were doing so.7
The Influence of Friends and Family
Diners tend to be influenced by the eating habits of those around them. In one study, when two friends restricted the amount of food they ate without telling a third friend, the third friend also ate less.8 Conversely, diners eat more when the people they are eating with consume large portions.9
Environmental Changes to Reduce Mindlessness
A series of small changes to one’s environment can reduce mindless eating and its effects on food intake. These can include switching to smaller plates and bowls; using tall, thin glasses; measuring and serving appropriate portions; and being aware of the influence of others at mealtime.
|The Weight Watchers Approach
Weight Watchers encourages its members to track their intake using eTools, modify their environment, and develop Routines and create Spaces that reduce mindlessness and lead to eating patterns that support weight management.
Check out our Science Library or read more about Science and Weight Watchers.
2Wansink B, Kim J. Bad popcorn in big buckets: Portion size can influence intake as much as taste J Nutr Ed Behav. 2005; 37:112-120.
3Rolls BJ, Morris EL, Roe LS. Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and overweight men and women Am J Clin Nutr. 2002:76(6):1207-1213.
4Diliberti N, Bordi PL, Conklin MT, Roe LS, Rolls BJ. Increased portion size leads to increased energy intake in a restaurant meal Obes Res. 2004;12(3):562-568.
5van Kleef E, Shimizu M, Wansink B. Serving bowl selection biases the amount of food served. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012 Jan-Feb; 44(1):66-70.
6Van Ittersum K, Wansink B. Plate size and color suggestibility: the Delboeuf Illusion’s bias on serving and eating behavior. J Cons Res. 2012; Epub ahead of print.
7Wansink B, Painter JE, North J. Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obes Res. 2005; 13:93-100.
8Howland M, Hunger JM, Mann T. Friends don't let friends eat cookies: Effects of restrictive eating norms on consumption among friends Appetite. 2012 Oct; 59(2):505-9.
9Hermans RC, Larsen JK, Herman CP, Engels RC. How much should I eat? Situational norms affect young women's food intake during meal time Br J Nutr. 2012 Feb; 107(4):588-94.