One simple tip that can snuff out ‘mindless eating’ like a light

What I write about on this blog is inspired by a variety of things, including published research and political issues that arise in the area of food or health generally. Another source of inspiration is the clients who consult me in practice. And yesterday, I spoke to more than one person over the course of the day that asked specifically about how much in the way of nuts constitutes a snack. The problem with these individuals was that they can find themselves eating endless amounts of nuts, often only stopping once the bag is empty (however big it is!). When, over a short time-frame, more than one person has such a specific query then I usually take it as a sign it’s a relatively common issue that I perhaps should be writing about.

As a rule, I do not tend to advise ‘portion control’ for individuals looking to eat healthily and even those seeking to lose weight. My rationale is that people benefit from responding to what their bodies are telling them about how much they should eat. With the ‘primal’ diet I generally advocate, it’s common for individuals not to have to exert any conscious restraint in terms of volume, as still lose weight very effectively. One reason for this is that ‘primal’ foods, by and large, are generally good at satisfying the appetite, and individuals tend not to overeat them.

However, I recognise what and how much we eat is not always solely governed by hunger and appetite. Lot’s of other factors, such as social setting and food availability, can play a part too. I, for instance, eat a generally very healthy diet, but that’s at least part due to the fact that I generally don’t have much in the way of unhealthy food in my home. If I did, my suspicion is that my diet wouldn’t be as good.

On the other hand, I strongly recommend keeping healthy foodstuffs like nuts quite close to hand, as snacking on these can sate genuine hunger, and dramatically reduce the risk the someone will eat rubbish subsequently (once they’ve got just ‘too hungry’). I was on a radio show recently with someone who had lost weight successfully following the principles outlined in my latest book Waist Disposal. He’d taken on board the message that ‘hunger is the enemy’ and was snacking regularly on nuts, including on the day of the radio broadcast.

Prior to going on air, the producer of the show was tempting us to eat her homemade scones with jam. Both of us declined politely because we were, quite honestly, not tempted by what was on offer. I’m sure the scones were fine – it’s just that neither of us was hungry.

So, on the one hand we want to have something like nuts available to us and use them to prevent uncontrolled eating later on, but we don’t want to munch on them indiscriminately either. What to do?

Here’s my advice to those prone to bit of ‘mindless eating’: keep the nuts available, but not visible. You should know they’re there should you need them, but you can’t see them and they’re certainly not, say, in front of you on your desk.

Ideal storage places would be inside a kitchen cupboard, a desk drawer, a handbag, briefcase or laptop bag, or the glove compartment in a car. Now, if we get peckish, we’re at liberty to take some nuts and eat them. I recommend tipping a few into the palm of the hand and returning the bag to where it’s normally stored. Once the nuts are eaten, the fact that the nuts are not right in front of us will generally give our body a little time to register that food. If we’re still hungry after a while, we can take some more nuts.

The crucial thing is that if someone is properly sated, there usually isn’t any tendency for them to go foraging for the nuts again. Keeping food out of sight is usually enough to snuff out mindless eating like a light.

Now, this tendency to consume things ‘mindlessly’ is not always a bad thing, and can be used to our advantage. I suggest, for instance, that individuals would generally do well to drink enough water to keep their urine pale yellow throughout the course of the day. The standard advice I give here is ‘just keep water by you’. This, for most people, will be a bottle of water and a glass on their desk. Once it’s there, people usually quaff water quite happily and even unconsciously. As a result, for these individuals, dehydration is rarely an issue.

For more about mindless eating, I recommend Professor Brian Wansink’s book which is appropriately titled ‘Mindless Eating’. For more about Prof Wansink’s work and the book see here.

13 Responses to One simple tip that can snuff out ‘mindless eating’ like a light

  1. Nicky Chapman 10 September 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent tip, out of sight out of mind does work well.

    One other technique that I use to help me is before I eat anything I ask myself ‘on a scale of 1 to 10 how hungry am I?’ and then I score myself.

    If I can feel hunger in my tummy then I am normally a 7 or above, in that instance I will eat a snack. If it’s less than 7 and I truly don’t feel hungry then I know I’m eating for a reason other than hunger and will drink a glass of water instead.

  2. Adrian Hepworth 10 September 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    I totally agree with your comments but would like to add one small point. I’m pretty certain that much of the eating till the end of the bag, is more likely if your choice of nuts is ‘salted’. Thousands of years ago we would have had to travel hundreds of mile to get our ‘fix’ of salt. It was very valuable and hard to get hold of. The word salary is a reminder of this history. This need for salt has now made it so desirable that once we have the taste we have to get all that’s going. As one brand of snack says “Once you pop, you can’t stop!”. So if you can’t stop searching out the hidden stash of nuts, try unsalted!

  3. Radiant Lux 10 September 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    Excellent post! I keep coconut oil and homemade soaked, roasted nuts in my desk. (recipe from Nourishing Traditions) After I read The Diet Cure by Julia Ross, I started taking L-Glutamine in between meals and that works just as well for me. Sometimes what I mistake for hunger is actually a brain chemistry imbalance. If I notice my thoughts start turning to carbs, that’s when I need L-Glutamine. If I’m really hungry the supplement can take the edge off but not entirely.

  4. Ted 10 September 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    I take a small tupperware type container (7cm x 3 cm) of nuts with me to work every day. If the bags not with me I can’t eat the contents!

  5. Tess 10 September 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    This reminded me of an old joke. “I’m on the seafood diet.”
    “Oh, really?”
    “Yes, whenever I see food I eat it.”
    I know I am much more likely to eat more than I need if it is right under my nose. Strangely I often find myself wanting to eat when I’m reading a novel and food is mentioned. It doesn’t have to be well described or delicious sounding food, it seems to depend more on how hungry the characters in the novel are!

  6. David Manovitch 11 September 2010 at 2:28 am #

    I have eaten in this way most of my adult life. I almost always refuse the offer of food if I am not hungry. I confess to keeping nuts or seeds or both in my desk or brief case. However I have always been slim, due to a high basal metabolic rate, I assume, and maybe would have remained so despite my healthy diet.

  7. Annie 11 September 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    Can anyone suggest another quick portable protein
    snack for those people who are nut allergic?

  8. Daisy 12 September 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    I’m impressed that you can “politely decline” homebaked scones! I was brought up to believe that it’s extremely rude to refuse anything homebaked, and find it nigh on impossible to do so.
    Any tips, short of inventing a gluten intolerance or possibly impending Type 2 diabetes?

  9. Michelle 13 September 2010 at 11:40 am #

    You could try getting hold of some Surf Seeds – they are a sunflower seed snack, some have a bit of chocolate on them . THere is also a dairy-free option which is sunflower seeds mixed with dried blueberries. They come on a really handy container for your handbag, (75 gram packs which is 3 servings) They originated in Ireland last year but I believe you can now get them in the UK if that is where you are based. They are truly yummy and won a great taste award.

  10. Peter Andrews 13 September 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    Your article has inspired me to move the large bag of almonds from where it lives on the kitchen island back into the cupboard.

  11. Gill Oliver 5 October 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    I have a problem with my mouth and tongue called lichen planus which makes it impossible to eat nuts or seeds as they can make my mouth very sore,can anyone suggest a protein snack other than these as i’m trying hard to lose weight.


  1. More evidence that a protein-rich diet helps satisfy the appetite | Dr Briffa's Blog - 23 September 2010

    […] As to what to eat, I’d opt for nuts (assuming no allergy issues). Nuts generally do a very good job of sating the appetite. Fruit (another favoured snack food), generally, does not. For more advice on how to snack in a way that reduces the risk of overeating, see this recent post here. […]

  2. Eating while distracted may lead to over-eating | Dr Briffa's Blog - 10 December 2010

    […] we need to, and we may not make the greatest choices either. I wrote about mindless eating recently here, and in this post recommend one simple strategy that can work wonders to snuff out mindless eating […]

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