There are plenty of things I do that annoy my wife. The one thing that drives her bonkers is the way I eat. I am a virtual garbage disposal and regularly clean plate after plate at every meal. I try to eat well, but whatever I consume, it is typically in large quantities.
While I am sure my wife is concerned with my health, that isn’t what annoys her. Rather, it’s the fact that I never gain weight. Call it good genes, a high metabolism, my kinetic personality, my active lifestyle, or a secret tapeworm named Bob. Whatever the reason, I stay lean.
If you disregarded my advice in my last column telling you not to make a New Year’s resolution, I bet that you resolved to lose weight. It’s the No. 1 New Year’s resolution — and it is also the No. 1 failed resolution. I’m not one to hold a grudge, so let me help you with some ways to work with your brain instead of against your gut.
We simply eat too much, and it’s our brains, not our stomachs, that often are to blame. You may think we eat because our stomachs start growling. That’s true on occasion. But there are many other reasons why we eat.
Why we eat
We eat because we had a bad day, because we’re celebrating, because we’re bored, because we just woke up, because it’s noon, because it’s 7 p.m., because we have restaurant reservations, because we’re offered something and want to be polite, because we’re offered something that looks like it tastes good, and even because we’re offered something we think is healthy. Those are just some reasons, and none have much to do with actual hunger.
Studies have shown that when we eat, what we eat and how much we eat most often is determined by outside factors. There are the obvious ones, like eating because other people around us are eating. But there are also less obvious reasons that have been proven to increase our girth and appetite: for example, the size of our plates, the color contrast between our food and our plates and which commercials come on television while we’re eating. The key to eating less without going hungry, it turns out, isn’t to control your hunger; rather, it’s to control all the things that are unrelated to your hunger.
Here are three reasons your brain will trick you into overeating and how to counteract them:
1. Your brain responds to the sight of food.
Take a look around: What’s on your desk or counter? Your brain wants to eat what it sees, so put away all but the healthiest foods. If you must leave out those pesky candies, put them in a jar with a lid. My friend and Duke psychologist Dan Ariely had Google place all of their office M&Ms in closed jars and the amount consumed dropped by 3 million candies per month. At both our Dun & Bradstreet and Bryant Stibel offices, we have jellybeans that are placed in re-sealable light bulbs (cool, inspirational and slightly more healthy).
If your break room at work is full of baked goods, stay out. Don’t sit where you can see people eating. Your brain will normalize that behavior, and you’ll find yourself doing it too. Similarly, unless you’re my wife, don’t eat with people like me — you are more likely to gorge if you are eating with a garbage disposal.
2. Turn off your brain and focus on your food
Once you start eating, enjoy it. Make food the purpose of your meal. If you are doing work or watching TV, you will be distracted and your brain won’t get the gratification it is looking for from your meal. For the past 10 years, I have insisted that people go out to lunch at work. Go to a park or find a nice restaurant, relax and enjoy the company of others. There are two advantages to not working while eating: you eat less, and you come back more refreshed. No matter what you eat, numerous studies have shown that if you do it while distracted, you’ll eat more.
3. Your brain is impulsive when it comes to food
When animals see food, they eat. It’s automatic. Humans are evolutionarily hardwired the same way. If you go to a social event where food is served, your brain will take in all the cues around you (social, visual, olfactory) and inevitably conclude that you should mindlessly graze at the buffet.
There are some simple tips that can help you counteract that urge that sound ridiculous, but they really work. Studies have shown that you eat less when your back is to food, you eat less the farther away you sit from the buffet, you eat less the longer you wait to start eating and you eat less if you first look at all of the food available to you before diving in. Basically, physical barriers redefine your mental predilections.
There are plenty of ways to lose weight, but they often mean exercising and extraordinary willpower — and that’s why a lot of weight loss plans at first succeed, and then fail. It is far easier, and far more effective, to work with your brain and eliminate mindless eating.
Jeff Stibel is vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist. He is the USA TODAY bestselling author of Breakpoint and Wired for Thought. Follow him on Twitter at @stibel.