Mindful and mindless eating are terms that get thrown around quite a bit lately. What does it mean to engage in mindless eating? The answer I hear to this regularly is “I was just bored”. I never buy this explanation. There are a few pieces that contribute to mindless eating.
- The reward. Our brain creates strong connections with food. This is due to the dopamine response generally tied to addictive or compulsive habits. Our brain starts to look forward to the reward. We anticipate what food will taste like before we eat it. Based on past experience, we also anticipate how it will make us feel. We seek it out to feel the anticipated reward.
- They say it takes anywhere from 21-66 days to form a new healthy habit and only a couple of days to form a self-defeating habit. Our brain forms a strong pathway between food and the desired outcome (numbing, comfort, etc). If you tend to take the same route to work every day, at some point you will intend to go somewhere else and find yourself beginning to drive to work. Our behavior with food can function the same way on autopilot, but it is set off by a triggering event or emotion. This is the part that “mindless eaters” tend to miss.
- I “should” stop. This is a common part of mindless eating. We’ve already told ourselves that we “shouldn’t” or “can’t” eat certain foods. Should goes hand in hand with defiance. We feel defiance when we perceive that we are being pressured to do something we don’t really want to do. Once we use the “should” word, we generally feel shame on some level and it leads us to overeat.
- Dissociation is a way to shut off our brain in a way to protect ourselves from emotional distress. On an unconscious level, we detach ourselves from the emotional pain setting off the urge to eat when we aren’t physically hungry.
As you can see, there is much more to mindless eating than meets the eye initially. By looking beyond the behavior, you will start to notice that there is always an emotional trigger that sets off the chain reaction of emotional eating.