“Mindless Eating” – Why Do We Continue to Eat When We Are Full?

June 18, 2009

I was doing some research online today and stumbled across a description of a book that made good sense to me: Mindless Eating. I haven’t ordered the book yet, but I liked the parts that I’ve read so far. Food psychologist, Dr. Brian Wansink examines why we eat more than we should even when full. I’m the sort of person who can eat a full bag of chips, a bowl of candy, and basically anything placed in front of me. If it isn’t near me I’m good, but if food is within reach for extended periods of time I will eat it all! Dr. Wansink has my eating-style nailed down to a “t”!

Plate of nachos

[If you put this plate of nachos in front of me, I will continue to devour it until the plate is empty! I don’t care how big the plate is. My hand will continue to grab chips on autopilot until nothing is left. “My name is Rusty and yes, I am a mindless eater”. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.]

Having Symptoms of Mindless Eating Without Realizing It

I am a full-blown mindless eater, no doubt about it! It is dangerous for me to go to restaurants that serve big portions. I have to finish the plate. There is something deep inside me that won’t let me leave food on a plate. You may or may not be a hardcore mindless eater like me, but most people exhibit mindless eating behaviors without knowing it. Dr. Wansink conducted a bunch of interesting studies showing just how common this problem is.

The Mindless Eating – Stale Popcorn Study

Two groups of theater patrons were given free containers of stale popcorn. One group was given a large container and one group was given an extra-large container (both too big too consume). Each group’s containers were collected after the movie and they were told this: “Some people tonight were given medium-size buckets of popcorn, and others, like yourself, were given these large-size buckets. We have found that the average person who is given a large-size container eats more than if they are given a medium-size container. Do you think you ate more because you had the larger size?”

The Group Given the Larger Bucket Ate 53% More Popcorn

When they were told that they most likely ate more due to the fact that the container was larger, most of the people denied that it applied to them…saying “Things like that don’t trick me,” or “I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m full.” When they weighed the popcorn, they found that those with the largest bucket ate 53% more popcorn. Wansink stated…”Most people eat mindlessly, based on the size of the container and other cues—not the taste of the popcorn or how hungry or full they are.”

The Mindless Eating – Chocolate Candy Dish Study

Dr. Wansink performed this fun study on desk-bound secretaries and chocolate candy. On week one, he placed the candy dish on the corner of the secretary’s desk. During week 2, the candy dish was placed in the top left-hand desk drawer. During week 3, he placed the candy dish six feet from the desk. When the candy was on the desk, the secretaries ate 9 pieces on average per day…when in the desk, 6 pieces on average…six feet from the desk, 4 pieces on average.

“The More Hassle It Is to Eat, the Less We Eat”

Dr. Wansink had this to say about the candy dish study “The basic principle is convenience…When we talked to the secretaries after the study, many of them mentioned that having six feet between them and the candy gave them enough time to think twice whether they really wanted it. It gave them time to talk themselves out of having another chocolate.”

By the Age of 5 We Typically Eat Whatever is In Front of Us

Professor Wansink has observed that a 3 year old will stop eating when they are full, regardless of how much food is placed in front of them. By the age of 5, however, a child will eat whatever is placed in front of them…”If they are given a lot, they will eat a lot”. Serving size plays a huge role on how much we eat.

Habits Are Harder to Change Than Your Environment

In my opinion it is easier to not have the big portions of food in front of you in the first place. One of the tips that Dr. Wansink gives is to dish up your plate for dinner and then put the remaining food in the fridge before eating…don’t have the food out so that you can go back for seconds and thirds. Also, it makes sense to not have high calorie snacks in front of you when you are watching TV or watching a movie.

A Good Restaurant Strategy to Ensure You Eat Less

A couple of days ago, I walked to get pizza and a beer with my girlfriend (a mile away, trying to get my daily walking in). What we decided to do was order a dinner salad and a small personal pizza and split them both. We had just a little salad and a few slices of pizza and a beer. Going forward, we have decided that at many restaurants we will each order a dinner salad and split one of the main courses. It is a way to insure that we don’t eat 2,000 calorie dinners at the places that serve massive portions. Give it a try!

Note: Please comment on whether you think you are a “mindless eater” or not. I am a full-blown mindless eater, and here to support you!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

suzy June 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm

what is a bug in an adult stomach,how did i get it,i’ve been given anti biotics for next 14 days

Jayme November 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm

I’m a total mindless eater. I HAVE to be almost obsessive about splitting up portions when I buy large quantities so that i don’t just grab a container of something when I get that ‘itch’ to munch on something.

Ron November 29, 2010 at 2:49 am

Read ‘Mindless Eating’ from Brian Wansink and you can get more comprehensive and practical suggestions on making simple changes that will allow you to lose 2 or 3 pounds per month. This is the best non-diet book there ever is.

archash December 9, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Hi Russ!

Yep! Extremely guilty here!

My main weaknesses are Pringles (one you pop you can’t stop!) and Cheetos. I am a bit of a sweet tooth as well (Darn those M&M’s). These things are probably what is halting my progress from losing these “last” stubborn 5-10lbs! Another Great read Russ!

P.S. – I just stumbled upon your site by accident (I actually forgot where I got the link lol). Like the many others here I’m also trying to get as LEAN as possible (my ultimate goal is the body Cam Giganet had in Never back down…yeah…I have a lot of work to do). I’m trying out ESE right now and pretty soon I’ll be incorporating The Vacation Body Blueprint and Visual Impact to my lifestyle (I need to read them first 😛 but I keep getting sidetracked by all these other posts you made! curses! ). Anyway, great site Rusty. My eyes are officially “opened” and I cannot stop from reading AND backreading all the posts. Keep up the good work!

Layla April 15, 2011 at 4:55 am

I’m not really a mindless eater, but I was a BIG eater. As a little girl I would eat whatever was on my plate, then eat what was left in the kitchen and then eat what was left on the plates of father, brother and mother.

I am 25 now, have struggled with my weight pretty much all my life and I am now finally at a healthy weight! I do Atkins and I have gradually stopped eating so much.
Now I can have a normal sized salad for dinner and just be satisfied! 😀

Lya July 13, 2011 at 2:03 am

I can proudly say – I am NOT a mindless eater and took me a while to work on it ..I took this approach: every time the food is in front of me I took a step back and thought about it, remembering what ate through the day and how much I can allow myself to eat. When my stomach sent me signals that it’s full, I have basically put the rest in the fridge (if I was at home), or into the rubbish bin (if I didnt’ want it at all any more), if in restaurant, I’d put the napkin on it, so I didn’t continue eating. And yes it was VERY hard.
I’ve also learned how to chew slooowly as it takes about 20 minutes for our brain to get the signal that we are full, so stretch your chewing, also better for digestion, plus drink a glass of water before your meal, you’ll get full quicker 😉

Adam Renshaw November 17, 2011 at 3:49 am


I am a huge mindless eater. Until about a year ago I was pretty overweight, but now I’ve managed to get my weight is check, build a six pack and I’m now one of the fittest people on my soccer team. However, I’ve just started a new job working in corporate relations, and many events we put on are catered and they always leave excess food such as pastries, cakes, sandwiches etc. I find it extremely difficult to just have one or two items, and often end up mindlessly eating about 10 pastries, 10 sandwiches and 5 cakes in one sitting. This is worsened by the fact that it’s all free, and professionally cooked (i.e. tasty).

Do you have any advice on how I can try and ignore the temptation to mindlessly eat at work? I don’t think I can handle going back to being overweight and unhappy, but I don’t feel like I can stop myself at this rate.

Catherine August 27, 2012 at 2:24 am

Hi Rusty

I am a huge mindless eater from South Africa.

I’ve read the blog and so happy to see i am not alone.

Two years ago i managed to loose 18kg’s and have since probably only picked up 2 or 3 kg. I’ve been trying to loose it again but struggling. During the day i am fine, but as soon as i get home i want to eat whatever is in sight. I’ve removed most of the wrong foods and making healthy supper, but after supper i find myself climing into my sons treat drawer! i don’t drink a lot of water, i struggle with that. i don’t know what to do anymore !!

Janet Aldrich September 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I’m a mindless eater, but I’m also an emotional eater, and that’s a lethal combination. I agree with those who posted that not having stuff in the house that you know you can’t say “no” to is the best approach (and it helps to have eaten something light before you go to the grocery store, too).

Somedays, though (and today, sadly has been one of them) I will eat even though I’m not hungry and I can’t figure out why. Same with sweet stuff — I’ve wiped out an entire bag of Oreo Double-Stuf cookies in one sitting, even though, as I’m doing it, I’m asking myself why. I feel like a marionette whose strings are being pulled from outside.

Carrie October 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Just reading through this article I ate 15+ baby carrots, three handfuls of cheese-its, and a handful of roasted almonds. That is after I ate two full plates at dinner. I have always been a huge eater, even as a child my mother would get dirty looks from people for taking food away from me because I wouldn’t stop eating. I have been luckily gifted with a very high metabolism and I don’t really have a sweet tooth except on rare occasions. I have just hit 30 and I am starting to notice weight gain because of my horrible eating habits. I am actually a very health conscious eater, being raised on an all organic farm. I don’t eat junk food, but my portions are completely out of control. I am a 5’5′ always been 130 female, but in the last year I am starting to inch up in weight and I know it is because of the way I eat. As many have mentioned they can out eat their friends, I can out eat all my friends combined. Its been a running joke my whole life that one day it is going to catch up with me and I am going to be the woman that cant leave her house because she can’t fit through the door. I need help and I am not sure where to begin. I’ve been told it is an emotional thing, but I am not sure it is. Also my energy level has severely deteriorated over the last year also… and no I have never been an excersizer but I am active. Please Help!!!

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