We all do it from time to time: eat dinner while watching TV, inhale a sandwich behind the wheel, down a gratuitous doughnut in front of the computer. When such autopilot experiences are the exception to our usual eating habits, they’re no cause for concern. But what about when these patterns become the rule?
“When we don’t taste what we eat, we can end up stuffed to the gills but completely unsatisfied,” explains Jan Chozen Bays, MD, author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship With Food. In other words, we may find ourselves with a habit that is taking all the joy out of eating in the present — and is harming our bodies and minds in the long run.
The first step to disentangling ourselves from unhelpful food patterns is the same as for any behavior change: We must become aware of what we’re doing, as well as when and how. That’s easier said than done, of course, since the very nature of a habit is to operate beneath our notice.
To make these tendencies easier to spot, we’ve investigated five of the most common problem eating patterns. We’ve also gathered expert insight on the ways each might affect us and learned how — with awareness and self-compassionate experimentation — we can reclaim our rightful place at the table.
Eating too fast is endemic to our harried way of life. “We live too fast, we drive too fast, we talk too fast . . . why should our relationship with food be any different?” asks Marc David, MA, founder of and primary instructor at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating and author of The Slow Down Diet. “Learning how to slow down with food is a metaphor for slowing down with life.”
There are several negative consequences for eating too fast. First, bolting down food robs us of the full satisfaction of eating, leading us to eat more than we otherwise would. Digestion starts with the brain’s sensory experience of seeing food, smelling food, and anticipating food, David explains. “When you eat too quickly, you bypass food’s sensory pleasure,” he says. “This has the effect of slowing the metabolism and diminishing your body’s ability to burn that food as fuel.”
Eating too fast also triggers the stress response, which inhibits proper digestion. Any rapid behavior helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism, David notes. For primal humans, moving quickly usually meant we were in danger. In this state, breath becomes shallow, and blood is channeled away from the digestive organs to the arms and legs so we can run or fight. Digesting lunch wasn’t a big priority if a predator was on your heels.
The threats in our current environment may be less immediate, but our basic biochemistry is the same. Scarf down a muffin during rush-hour traffic and the fight-or-flight response is sure to kick into high gear, at which point digestive enzymes dry up. Gut transit time may hasten (causing diarrhea) or slow down (causing constipation). Nutrient absorption grinds to a halt.
The way out of this habit is to create new ones. A few ground rules can help prevent hasty eating:
- Guard mealtime. David calls on Americans, the consummate speed-eaters, to “reclaim their right to dine.” That means dedicating a regular time to sit down at a table and savor your food. Fend off the impulse to check your messages while eating or to down breakfast in your car.
- Take five to 10 slow, deep breaths before every meal. This will flip on the body’s relaxation response, a built-in protection against stress. Breathing deeply expands the diaphragm, stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the colon and activates the relaxation response, downshifting the fight-or-flight impulse. (For more on the vagus — also known as the gut-brain axis — see “Why the Vagus Nerve Matters to Your Health“.)
- Pace yourself. If you normally eat breakfast in five minutes, try 10. “If you are a fast-and-furious eater, it’s time to change gears,” says David. “The more time we set aside for a meal, the more we place ourselves in the optimum state of nutritional and calorie-burning metabolism. The less time we take for a meal, the less the body is able to determine when it is full.”
2. Secret Snacking
If you hide chocolate in your desk drawer or eat chips only in private, it’s a sign that you might be adding a heavy dose of moral judgment to your snacks. Sneaking food implies that we believe the food, and probably the appetite for that food, is “bad,” says David. “When you label things ‘bad,’ like any good criminal, you will do it in secret.”
Secretive eating also feeds the kind of shame that perpetuates poor eating habits. “Any behavior that takes place in secret tends to go hand in hand with shame,” says Michelle May, MD, a mindful-eating speaker and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. “If I eat something ‘bad,’ then I feel guilty, and I feel like a ‘bad’ person for doing it.”
Unsurprisingly, secret eating often inhibits enjoyment. Compared with actively savoring food, eating in secret is stressful, which means the release of fewer endorphins, the pleasure chemicals that promote digestion.
Endorphins also help assimilate nutrients, boost metabolic response, and enhance satisfaction. “The chemistry of pleasure is intrinsically designed to fuel metabolism,” says David. “[But] when food comes with a helping of guilt, the nervous system registers only a minimum of pleasurable sensations, and we are physiologically driven to eat more. We’re compelled to hunt down the pleasure we never fully receive, even though it’s continually within our grasp.”
Eating furtively is also linked to what’s known as “eating the feelings.” Instead of sitting with an uncomfortable situation, May notes, we seek a quick pleasure-fix through food to help manage or suppress our discomfort.
When the urge strikes to eat behind closed doors, stop and ask yourself what emotion you are trying to escape. “You may think you are overeating ‘just because it tastes good’ or ‘because you lack willpower,’” May adds. Yet that’s rarely the case. “The why becomes clear only when you explore the feelings that underlie your actions.”
Find your way to the why with these practices:
- Notice which foods you eat in secret. What do these foods have in common? Which foods cause the greatest guilt? Next time the urge to stealth-eat strikes, David suggests asking yourself, “What is my body really hungry for?” Other than food, what comes to mind?
- Don’t allow others to shame you. “There may be people in your life who feel like they can judge what you’re eating,” says May. “Tell them, ‘I appreciate your intention, but when you tell me what I can and can’t eat, I feel angry and guilty, and it actually makes me feel like eating more. I’d appreciate it if you’d stop commenting on my food choices.’”
- Pay attention to what came before. Note what triggers the desire for a secret snack. What scenario typically sets you off?
- Redirect your inner rebel. Sneaking “forbidden” foods can also be a thrill. “There’s a part of us that likes breaking the rules,” says David, “and engaging in secret eating can be exciting.”
If that’s true for you, you might try finding other ways to appease your inner rebel. Say, do, or try something a little edgier than you normally would, or look for a way to more openly express your authentic self.
3. Night-Eating Syndrome
Regular mealtimes are key to eating more mindfully. “If all day it’s coffee and cottage cheese, then night falls and all hell breaks loose, that’s a sign you’re setting yourself up for overeating and making poor food choices,” says nutritionist Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA.
This behavior — sometimes called night-eating syndrome (NES) — is typically defined as eating 25 percent of one’s total calories after the evening meal more than three times a week. NES is generally connected with blood sugar: If you have not eaten enough during the day and your body is deprived of food for many hours (and especially if you started the day with a sugary breakfast), blood-sugar levels can nosedive.
That triggers a voracious appetite for quick-energy foods, usually more sugary, simple-carbohydrate snacks. These will make blood sugar rise — but rather than initiate the gentle, rolling hills of energy the body needs to stay on its game, they trigger big blood-sugar spikes and deep valleys. “Our willpower is no match for our physiology,” says nutritionist Annie Kay, MS, RDN, author of Every Bite Is Divine. “The biggest determinant of hunger later on is big drops in blood sugar early in the day.”
NES is more common in men than women and often goes hand in hand with weight gain and depression. “The calories people binge on usually aren’t salad,” Ayoob says. “It’s hard to make good decisions when you are hungry.”
These behaviors can help counteract this tendency:
- At each meal, plan the next. At breakfast, think ahead to lunch. Decide what you want to make or which leftovers to take to work. After dinner, consider tomorrow’s breakfast. Maybe slice some strawberries to pair with yogurt or make a couple of hard-boiled eggs. It may feel tedious at first, but a supportive eating routine involves a certain amount of advance planning, says Ayoob. “That doesn’t mean you can’t ever have treats or be spontaneous,” he offers. “It just means that planning and prepping is a must.”
- Make sure each meal includes protein. Although bowls of oatmeal and pasta are comforting, they can set you up for a blood-sugar crash. Put high-quality protein on the plate for each meal. (This also applies to vegetarians — nuts, beans, and tempeh will help you stay grounded.) Snacks can also be protein-rich. Consider a fistful of almonds or a hard-boiled egg with hot sauce.
- Plan a preemptive strike against the postwork binge. We often ignore the body’s needs for nourishment during the working day, either because we’re too distracted or feel too busy to eat. “After work, when the brain finally gets permission to attend to our physical needs, the body is as ravenous as a neglected dog, and so we tend to overeat,” says David. He suggests eating a high-fiber, protein-rich snack before dinner. This will take the edge off extreme hunger and help prevent the urge to binge later.
(See “13 Strategies to Avoid Late-Night Snacking” for more alternatives to help curb self-destructive NES.)
Most of us know the feeling — we’ve just endured a stressful scenario, and we’re suddenly gripped with an urge to eat everything in sight.
These cravings come courtesy of cortisol, the hormone our adrenal glands unleash anytime the body faces a real or perceived threat. Elevated cortisol levels can arouse a craving for sugar to fuel the fight-or-flight impulse, even though we don’t necessarily feel hungry.
When we eat in this state, the calories are more likely to be used to create visceral abdominal fat, a clever survival strategy the body uses to store fuel for lean times. Stress also reduces the gut’s acidity and, consequently, its ability to absorb key nutrients.
All to say, eating when we’re hungrier for comfort and safety than actual food does a number on us. But recognizing this tendency will help overcome it. “Noticing that you aren’t hungry but you feel like eating is half the battle,” says May. “Ask yourself in that moment, ‘What else can I do to address this emotion?’”
Here are some other tactics to try when you’re tempted to stress-eat:
- Consider your options. If stress sends you running to the refrigerator, remind yourself that eating won’t erase the stress, says May. Try making a list of things you find relaxing, such as a hot bath or taking your dog to the park. Keep the list on the pantry or refrigerator door. Next time you find yourself reaching for a stress snack, look at the list and consider your alternatives.
- Notice when the heat is rising. Do your best to notice the early signs of stress, such as a rapid heartbeat or racing thoughts. “Practicing self-awareness (such as noticing negative self-talk) and taking deep breaths at the first signs of stress can put you on a different path,” says Kay.
- If you give in, let it go. Berating yourself after a splurge only adds fuel to the fire. It’s better to simply acknowledge what happened and move on. “Turning to food at times of stress is part of being human,” says Eunice Chen, PhD, principal investigator for the Temple Eating Disorders program at Temple University. “Stress-eating only becomes a real problem when it’s your only way to deal with stress.”
5. Mindless Eating
You plunk down on the couch with a full bag of chips, and before you know it, the bag is empty. Or you sit down at your desk with a sandwich, check your email, and suddenly there’s nothing but crumbs.
The sad reality of mindless eating is that it leaves us empty, even when we’re technically full. And then we keep searching for fulfillment. “If we don’t feel satisfied, we’ll look around for something more or something different to eat. Everyone has had the experience of roaming the kitchen, opening cupboards and doors, searching in vain for something, anything, to satisfy,” explains Chozen Bays.
But she believes the solution is straightforward, if not always easy. “The only thing that will cure this fundamental kind of hunger is to sit down and be, even for a few minutes, wholly present.”
These are ways to offset the negative effects of mindless eating:
- When you eat, just eat. If you’re going to have a meal or snack, eat it before you begin doing anything else. Then clean up and put all food away. If you tend to eat while watching TV, try replacing eating with another activity: folding laundry, holding a mug of hot tea, lifting weights, knitting.
- Make the mechanisms of mindless eating work for you. If you know your habit is to grab the first thing in the fridge and eat it when you get home from work, make sure the first thing you grab is something like a tub of hummus and a container of prepped raw veggies. Or if you’re just not ready to give up eating the occasional dinner in front of the TV, decide that salads are the only thing you eat while you’re watching shows.
- Use your dishes. Even if you just want a handful of chips, put them on a plate. Plating food increases our awareness of portion size; it also makes us aware of the fact that we are, indeed, eating food at this moment.
Recognition is always the first step. From there, change often flows naturally. If you start by implementing one or two of these shifts, you might be surprised by how many others come along for the ride. You might also be shocked by how much you discover about yourself in the process.
“The antidote to modern food culture is bringing more self-inquiry into your day,” says Kay. “This is far from a chore — it’s a juicy opportunity to delve into what’s going on in your body and mind.”
This article originally appeared as “Tangled Up in Food” in the May 2022 issue of Experience Life.