On average, you make more than 200 decisions about food each day — but you're only aware of a small fraction of them (1).
The rest are performed by your unconscious mind and can lead to mindless eating, which may cause you to overeat, promoting weight gain.
Here are 13 science-backed tips to stop mindless eating.
Behavioral scientists believe one of the main reasons people overeat is because they rely on external rather than internal cues to decide whether they feel hungry or full.
Naturally, this can lead you to eat more than you need to.
To demonstrate this point, researchers provided participants with an unlimited amount of chicken wings while watching a long, televised sporting event.
Half of the tables were continuously cleaned, while the bones were left to accumulate on other tables. People with bones on their tables ate 34% less, or 2 fewer chicken wings, than people who had their tables cleaned (
Another experiment used bottomless bowls to slowly refill some participants' soups as they ate (
Those who ate from bottomless bowls consumed 73% more — amounting to roughly 113 extra calories — than those who ate from normal bowls (
Yet, those who ate more soup didn't feel fuller. Most also estimated their calorie intake to be the same as those eating from the regular soup bowls (
These two studies show that people tend to rely on visual cues, such as chicken bones or the amount of soup left, to decide whether they're full or still hungry.
To make this natural tendency work in your favor, keep evidence of what you eat in front of you. Examples include the empty beer bottles you drank at a barbecue or the plates used for previous courses at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
SUMMARY Use visual reminders of the foods and drinks you consume to help you stay mindful of how much you've already consumed.
Another external cue that can cause you to overeat is the size of your food packaging.
Known as the portion size effect, it may contribute to significant weight gain over time (
On the other hand, packages that include pause points may help diminish this effect, as they give you time to decide whether to keep eating.
Similarly, people eating from a large bag of 200 M&Ms consumed 31 more candies — 112 extra calories — than people given 10 small baggies of 20 M&Ms (6).
SUMMARY Favoring smaller packages can help you reduce the number of calories you consume by up to 25% without even noticing.
Studies show that people tend to eat 92% of the food they serve themselves.
Therefore, reducing the amount of food you serve yourself can make a significant difference in the number of calories you consume (
One easy way to reduce portion sizes without noticing the change is to use smaller plates and taller glasses.
That's because big plates tend to make your food portions look small, encouraging you to serve yourself more food.
Simply using 9.5-inch (24-cm) plates instead of 12.5-inch (32-cm) plates can help you easily eat up to 27% less food (
Additionally, studies show that using tall, thin glasses instead of wide, short ones can reduce the amount of liquids you pour yourself by up to 57% (8).
Therefore, pick wide, short glasses to help you drink more water and tall, thin ones to help you limit alcohol and other high-calorie beverages.
SUMMARY Replacing large plates with smaller ones and wide, short glasses with tall, thin ones are two easy ways to reduce your portion sizes and limit the effects of mindless eating.
Research shows that having a wider variety of food options can lead you to eat up to 23% more (9).
Experts label this phenomenon "sensory-specific satiety." The basic idea is that your senses tend to get numb after you're exposed to the same stimulus many times — for instance, the same flavors (10).
Having a wide variety of flavors in the same meal can delay this natural numbing, pushing you to eat more.
Simply believing there's more variety can also fool you. Researchers found that participants given bowls with 10 colors of M&Ms ate 43 more candies than those given bowls with 7 colors, despite all M&Ms tasting the same (11).
To make sensory-specific satiety work for you, try limiting your choices. For instance, pick only two appetizers at once during cocktail parties and stick to ordering the same drinks throughout the evening.
Keep in mind that this mainly applies to candy and junk food. Eating a variety of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts, is beneficial to your health.
SUMMARY Reducing the variety of food flavors, colors, and textures you're exposed to will help prevent you from eating more junk food than your body needs.
Researchers report that the popular saying, "out of sight, out of mind" applies particularly well to mindless eating.
To illustrate this point, one study gave secretaries Hershey's Kisses in covered bowls that were either clear, so they could see the candy, or solid, so they could not.
Those given clear bowls opened them to get candy 71% more often, consuming an extra 77 calories per day, on average (
Scientists believe that seeing food pushes you to consciously decide whether to eat it. Seeing it more often increases the chances you'll choose to eat the food.
Make this work in your favor by hiding tempting treats, while keeping healthy and nutritious food visible.
SUMMARY Keep tempting treats out of sight to prevent you from eating them mindlessly. On the other hand, keep healthy foods visible if hunger strikes.
The more work is needed to eat a food, the less likely you are to eat it.
In one study, secretaries were given clear bowls of candy that were placed in three different spots around the office: on the desk, in a desk drawer, or 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from the desk.
Participants ate an average of 9 candies a day when the bowl was on the desk, 6 if the bowl was in the drawer, and 4 if they had to walk to get to the bowl (
When asked why they ended up eating less when the bowls were placed further away, participants stated that the extra distance gave them the time to think twice about whether they really wanted the candy.
Make this work for you by picking snacks that require some extra work or by keeping less nutritious snack foods out of reach.
Better yet, get in the habit of serving all foods on plates and eating only while sitting at the kitchen table.
This inconvenience might be just what you need to keep yourself from mindlessly snacking out of boredom or while preparing dinner.
SUMMARY Take the convenience out of eating. Adding extra steps will allow you to turn a mindless eating behavior into a conscious choice, reducing the chance of overindulgence.
The extra time also allows your brain to realize you've eaten enough before you reach for that second serving (
Eating with your non-dominant hand or using chopsticks instead of a fork are two easy ways to reduce your eating speed and make this tip work for you. Chewing more often can help as well.
SUMMARY Slowing down your eating speed is an easy way to consume fewer calories and enjoy your meal more.
Scientists believe that this is especially true if you eat with family or friends, as it increases the time you spend eating, compared to when you eat by yourself.
The extra table time can push you to mindlessly nibble what's left on the plate while the rest of the group finishes their meal. It may also encourage you to eat a dessert you normally wouldn't (
Sitting next to slow eaters or people who normally eat less than you can work in your favor, influencing you to eat less or more slowly (
Other ways to counter this effect include choosing in advance how much of your meal you want to consume or asking the server to remove your plate as soon as you're done eating.
SUMMARY When dining in groups, sit next to people who eat less or at a slower pace than you. This can help prevent overeating.
Relying on external cues like the time of day to determine your level of hunger may lead you to overeat.
A study demonstrated this idea by isolating participants in a windowless room with a clock as their only time cue. This clock was then artificially controlled to run faster.
If you have difficulty distinguishing physical from mental hunger, ask yourself whether you would readily eat an apple.
Remember, real hunger doesn't discriminate between foods.
Another telltale sign of mental hunger is wanting something specific, such as a BLT sandwich. A craving for a specific food is unlikely to indicate real hunger.
SUMMARY Rely on internal cues of hunger rather than external ones to decrease the likelihood of eating more than your body needs.
Thanks to clever marketing, even foods labeled as healthy can push some people to mindlessly overeat.
"Low-fat" labels are a prime example, as foods low in fat are not necessarily low in calories. For instance, low-fat granola typically only has 10% fewer calories than regular-fat granola.
Nevertheless, study participants given granola labeled as "low-fat" ended up eating 49% more granola than those provided with the normally labeled granola (22).
Another study compared calorie intake from Subway and McDonald's. Those who ate at Subway consumed 34% more calories than they thought they did, while those who ate at McDonald's ate 25% more than they thought (23).
What's more, researchers noted that the Subway diners tended to reward themselves for their supposedly healthy meal choice by ordering chips or cookies with their meal (23).
Steer clear of the effects of the health halo by picking items based on their ingredients rather than their health claims.
Also, remember to pay attention to the side items you choose.
SUMMARY Not all foods labeled as healthy are good for you. Focus on ingredients rather than health claims. Also, avoid picking unhealthy sides to accompany your healthy meal.
Research has shown that buying in bulk and stockpiling foods can push you to eat more.
A study investigated this effect by providing a group of normal-weight college students with four weeks of snacks. Some received a normal quantity of snacks, while others received double the amount.
Participants who received the doubled amount ate 81% more calories from snacks per week than those who received the normal quantity (
Avoid falling for this effect by purchasing only what is necessary and trying not to buy snack foods for future events or unexpected visits.
Finally, if you really must stockpile items, make sure to keep the extra items well out of eyesight.
SUMMARY Stockpiling foods increases your likelihood of overeating. Instead, get in the habit of buying only what is necessary for the week.
Eating large volumes of food tricks your brain into thinking you consumed more calories, helping decrease the likelihood of overeating and weight gain.
Researchers examined this effect by serving participants two smoothies identical in calories. However, one had air added to it. Those who drank the greater-volume smoothie felt fuller and ate 12% less at their next meal (
An easy way to add volume to your meals without increasing the calorie content is to pick high-fiber foods with a low calorie density, such as vegetables.
A good rule of thumb to maximize food volume is to fill at least half your plate with vegetables at each meal.
SUMMARY High-volume foods help you feel full and decrease food intake at the next meal. Eating fiber-rich foods is an easy way to do this.
Eating while you're distracted can lead you to eat faster, feel less full, and mindlessly eat more.
For instance, people watching television while eating their meals ate 36% more pizza and 71% more macaroni and cheese (
Plus, it seems that the longer the show, the more food you're likely to eat. One study noted that participants watching a 60-minute show ate 28% more popcorn than those enjoying a 30-minute show (
Longer distractions extend the amount of time spent eating, making you more likely to overeat. In addition, eating while distracted may cause you to forget how much you've consumed, leading to overeating later in the day.
Indeed, another study observed that participants who played a computer game while eating lunch felt less full and snacked on nearly twice as many biscuits 30 minutes later, compared to their non-distracted counterparts (
By putting your phone away, switching off the TV, and focussing instead on the textures and flavors of your food, you'll quickly stop eating mindlessly and can instead enjoy your meal in a mindful manner.
SUMMARY Eating without using your TV, computer, or smartphone may help decrease the amount of food your body needs to feel full and satisfied.
To transition from mindless to mindful eating, try some of the simple tips above.
In doing so, you may improve your overall health and even lose weight in a way that feels easy and can be maintained over the long term.
For the best results, choose just three of these tips and aim to apply them consistently for around 66 days — the average time it takes to create a habit (38).