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Sitting in the crowded theater, with the trailers rolling, my seat suddenly started vibrating. After a moment I turned in search of the vibration’s source to discover a fidgeting young man tapping his foot against my seat. He caught my eye and stopped instantly. The movie began and so did the vibration. I turned, he stopped. We continued this dance throughout the movie.

He was embarrassed each time I turned. The fact is, this poor guy had absolutely no idea he was tapping his foot against my seat. Because he was unconscious of his tapping foot, he had no means of stopping it. When my glance triggered him to observe the behavior, it became easier (albeit embarrassing) for him to stop.

Lesson learned: It is impossible to quit doing something unless you know you are doing it.

Surprise Package

I have been helping people with chronic weight issues for more than 15 years. The most common theme among my clients is that gaining weight and being unfit are accidental, a bit of a surprise, an unintentional outcome of a busy life.

Very few of us, outside of Renee Zellweger, set out to intentionally gain weight. Like the kid in the theater tapping his foot, we are simply unaware of the behaviors that contribute to our weight and fitness challenges.

While we’re on the learning curve of a fitness and eating program, we remain vigilant, eating consciously, aware of every aspect of weight management. As we achieve mastery (or disappointment) our attention decreases, and is easily distracted. Gradually, unconscious eating behaviors return.

What does it mean to “eat consciously”? Think about your last great meal. Even as you sought to satisfy hunger, you savored each taste, and you knew intuitively how much to eat in order to feel content, not overly full. The accompanying emotional states were pleasurable. The memory of the meal lingered, each recollection triggering pleasant sensory responses. This is eating consciously.

Contrast this with a time when you were overly hungry, when there was a desperate edge to your hunger that reduced the satisfaction, eliminated the pleasure and minimized good memories. You chewed and swallowed, without being terribly aware of it, or of your surroundings. You may have wound up feeling uncomfortably full and lethargic. That resembles eating unconsciously.

It sounds familiar, right? We’ve all have done it. It may start out with a conscious choice, or not. It may taste great (if we notice), or it may be tasteless. It doesn’t lead to any sense of satisfaction, but a feeling closer to discomfort and unease. The emotional states accompanying this style of eating are unpleasant, even a bit disturbing.

Adjusting the Attention Deficit

Think of eating on a continuum of consciousness. The more aware you are, the more likely you are to have a healthy and satisfying eating experience. You can do a quick consciousness evaluation and adjustment on yourself at any point in the eating process – before, during or after any meal.

Just consider the following four questions:

  1. Is your sense of satisfaction high or low?
  2. Is your level of pleasure high or low?
  3. Are you consuming a normal, proper-size portion or an extreme portion?
  4. When you finish eating, are you content or uncomfortable?

When our consciousness is engaged and our attention properly placed, our eating tends to be appropriate.

When our consciousness is distracted by some other compelling need, we are far less attentive to the eating experience, and may eat to our detriment.

The symptoms of eating unconsciously appear in three ways:

  1. Physically
  2. Intellectually
  3. Emotionally

The physical symptoms of unconscious eating are easy enough to observe – overweight being by far the most obvious and common. But you may also find that you have specific physical actions or “scenes” related to unconscious eating, from browsing the chip and cookie aisles during every shopping trip, to a nightly habit of settling in front of the TV (or other activity) with food in hand (see “13 Strategies to Avoid Late-Night Snacking” if this is a challenge for you).

Then there are the mental symptoms. If you listen to your inner dialogue and you hear justifying, rationalizing and arguments about your food choices and portions, it’s a good sign you are drifting toward unconscious eating. Statements like “We always stop at the Dairy Queen on the way to the cabin!,” or “Can anyone actually see a movie without buttered popcorn?,” are really just convenient cover for habits – practiced actions and automatic responses that you’ve drummed in so deeply, you’re no longer fully aware of them.

Unconscious eating may also be symptomatic of emotional issues. When we use food to calm our emotional hurts, to numb the experience of the emotion, our consciousness is primarily focused on finding a distraction. In many families, childhood injuries were treated with a dual cure: Band-Aids and cookies. The cookie was meant to distract attention from the hurt knee, and eating became associated with masking and disguising pain. Some of us take that lesson into adulthood, and without being aware of it, depend on food to take the edge off all kinds of discomforts.

It is very common to medicate uncomfortable emotional states with food. The primary emotional aspect of eating has to do with self-esteem. When self-esteem is positive, and confidence is strong, we are far more conscious of eating. When we feel vulnerable, and self-esteem is low or negative, we are far less conscious and may turn to food to artificially boost our confidence.

Listen carefully to your “inner dialogue”:

  • Does your self-talk rationalize, excuse and coax you into having “just one more”?
  • Does it chide you for not being able to stop?

If the dialogue is demeaning or destructive, blaming or judgmental, then the risk of unconscious eating is higher. For some, eating is actually a way of quieting or droning out the inner critic.

Reclaiming Consciousness

Practicing regular self-observation is a great way to improve your conscious eating skills and reduce your risk of self-sabotage. Use the chart below to identify the places you need to reduce your risk. Be gentle if you catch yourself slipping toward the risky end of any of the consciousness scales: This is simply your opportunity to make a better choice. Don’t let your inner critic take over. Remember, we tend to be more successful when we are kind and compassionate with ourselves.

To figure out if unconscious eating is contributing to your weight challenges, consider various dynamics that may or may not be at work when you eat. Each of these dynamics exists on a continuum, ranting from high to low, or healthy to unhealthy.

Use this table to observe your eating patterns and evaluate your eating experience both before and after you eat. The further to the left on the scale you place yourself, the more conscious you are of the eating event, and therefore the greater your chances of making food choices (ones you won’t regret later):

Consciousness Continuum

High     ← ← ←


→ → →    Low


High  ← ← ←

Sense of Satisfaction

→ → →   Low
High  ← ← ←

Pleasure of Food

→ → →   Low
Appropriate, Normal  ← ← ←


→ → →   Extreme
Content  ← ← ←

Level of Comfort

→ → →   Uncomfortable, Overfull


High, Positive  ← ← ←

Self Esteem

→ → →   Low, Negative
Healthy  ← ← ←


→ → →   Destructive

Download image of Consciousness Continuum 

Here are some other suggestions:

  • Getting “centered” is a quick and powerful way to shift your position on any or all the consciousness scales listed. The fastest centering method I have found is a simple breathing technique. Inhale for a count of 7, hold for a count of 4, and release for a count of 8. That’s it – in for 7, hold for 4, out for 8. Repeat as needed. It won’t take long and will help you align your physical, emotional and mental centers.
  • Create some rules about eating, and food in general. Identify your riskiest foods and limit the frequency and amount you consume. If chips are trouble, purchase only small, single-serving bags of chips and don’t stock them at home. If buffet lunches challenge your commitment, avoid them. Find alternative choices that will be less damaging to your efforts.
  • Aim for conscious eating every time you eat. Remember how wonderful and satisfying eating can be when you are fully conscious and fully aligned emotionally, physically and intellectually. Keep a journal of both your conscious and unconscious eating experiences to get familiar with your own patterns and outcomes.

Like the boy at the movies, we all need cues from time to time to help us see what we are doing. Learning to recognize our symptoms is an important first step. Adjusting our position on the consciousness continuum is the next. Remember, if you are tired of kicking yourself, you can always change seats.

This article has been updated. It originally appeared online on July 1, 2002.

Margaret Churchill, M.A.

Margaret Churchill, M.A., is a Minneapolis-based psychotherapist specializing in issues related to overweight and obesity.

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