The Psychology of Mindless Eating

by Hannah S. · December 08, 2019 · 3 minute read
A man is eating  in front of a computer

The average person makes 200 food related decisions every day, most of them subconscious. That’s one every 7 minutes! Mindless eating is the fastest way to derail your diet and nutrition goals.

Eating Without Thinking

Everyone’s done it. Sitting down to watch TV and grabbing a snack, procrastinating at work by grabbing a snack, or not having time to make a proper breakfast and walking out the door with a snack instead. But this snacking, sometimes referred to as mindless eating, can be a big problem for losing weight or reaching your fitness goals. So how much are you snacking? You may be surprised to learn that the average American eats 5 times every day, and spends 14% of their annual income on food.

While snacking can be important in any diet, mindless eating is dangerous because when you eat, and it’s not out of hunger. Especially when you’re eating while distracted, your brain won’t form complete memories of what you ate, so you’ll feel that you need more than you really do later in the day. This can lead to overeating, which can eventually lead to weight gain.

Mindless Eating Cues


These food preferences are driven by more than hunger, they rely on cues. There are three types of cues related to mindless eating: sensory cues, emotional cues, and normative cues. Sensory cues include what you’re seeing, and hearing. For example, if there’s music playing, humans are likely to eat more, and when the food looks aesthetically pleasing. Emotional cues are determined by how you are feeling, such as wanting salty foods when stressed and crunchy foods when angry. Normative cues are due to perceptions of what peers would eat at a given time, and what you have typically eaten in similar circumstances.

Of course we also have natural cues that form eating habits, such as having a large meal after the gym. Spending 30 minutes doing cardio and 30 minutes lifting weights will burn a combined 400 calories on average, which is unfortunately only the amount of energy in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So the full extra meal, or high calorie snack that many people rely on after the gym, may be doing more harm than good.

So, what can you do?

Think Before You Eat

It’s easier to change your environment than it is to change your mind, so take steps to fight back against unconscious decisions before they’re made.

  • Using smaller plates can make you think you consumed more than you did, conversely, using very large plates can do the opposite.
  • Putting unhealthy foods out of sight can help you train yourself to crave what is easy to see and access.
  • Focusing on the meal in front of you instead of multitasking in order to create proper memories.
  • Anticipating between-meal hunger and have portions of snacks pre-prepared.
  • Drinking water before eating, since it can act as an appetite suppressant.
  • Eat slowly and enjoy the food you’re using to fuel your body.

What’s your best advice for avoiding mindless eating?


Hannah S.