How To Prevent Mindless Eating

Reading time: 4.5 Minutes, i.e. 30 seconds less than it takes my dad to get anywhere (“I’ll be there in 5 minutes.” Sure, dad).

“When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses—not your long-term goals—will guide your choices.”

Professor Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct

The Situation

I’ve always loved the movies.

Back when I lived in New York City, I would go to the AMC about two to three times per month. And because it was such a rare occurrence, I would always allow myself to order my favorite theatre treat: popcorn and Cherry Coke. Is there a better combo?

       A few years back, just before I left NYC, a friend and I went to see The Martian (Matt Damon = dreamboat). Since it was a Sunday evening, and therefore a ‘cheat day’ from our typical diets, my friend suggested half-jokingly that we opt for the large popcorn.

In case you haven’t been to the theatre recently, this thing is almost comically large. Apparently, a ‘large’ is an appalling 120 ounces (15 cups) and contains nearly 1,200 calories— not counting all the free refills. Caution be damned—we went for it.

      As soon as we got to our seats, about five minutes before the previews, we began alternating handfuls of fake-buttery bliss. If you eat popcorn like we do— like automatons— maybe you can relate. Once the lights went down, our little claws started a-churnin’. The action became machine-like, without any relation to hunger or enjoyment. Occupied by the coming attractions, our Riders released the steering wheel and let the Elephants take a spin. 

       Given the size of this popcorn monstrosity, naturally, I didn’t think we’d come close to finishing it. That was until, eventually, I reached in to the 120 ounce black hole and hit bottom. Nothing remained but the few unpopped kernels usually indicative of oncoming stomach pains.

      Normally, this wouldn’t be so shocking—hey, sometimes you finish popcorn at a movie. I mean, you know, most films are at least two hours long. That’s a lotta chompin’ time. The problem here was that, at that point in the evening, we were barely through the previews…

The Science

In a previous article, I referenced a great book called Nudge by the world-renowned authors, Thaler (Nobel Laureate) and Sunstein (Harvard Law Professor), who describe how environmental Tweaks can influence everything we do, not only as individuals, but on a societal and global level.

Applying this to personal health, they put it bluntly:

“Eating turns out to be one of the most mindless activities we do. Many of us simply eat whatever is put in front of us.”

If we want to stop the automatic actions, we’ll need the Rider to break the pattern. The problem is that our Rider is easily distracted and kind of a push-over.

A little diversion like YouTube, and we’ll forget about the thing we’re eating—letting the erratic Elephant take the wheel. Elephants are not good drivers.

Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford psychologist, touches on this topic in her indispensible book, The Willpower Instinct. McGonigal relays several studies from her Stanford colleagues showing how a distracted Rider leads to Elephant freewheelin’:

“Students trying to remember a telephone number are 50% more likely to choose chocolate cake over fruit at a snack cart. Distracted shoppers are more susceptible to in-store promotions, and more likely to go home with items not on their shopping lists.”

McGonigal goes on to explain that, “The prefrontal cortex is not always as reliable as we’d like. Many temporary states—like being drunk, sleep-deprived, or even just distracted—inhibit the prefrontal cortex, mimicking… brain damage. This leaves us less able to control our impulses.”

The rub: If you’re planning to ‘Netflix and chill’, back away from that tub of peanut butter-filled pretzels.

The Strategies

Apparently an idle mind is the “devil’s workshop.” I’m not sure about all that, but it seems that an undistracted mind makes way  healthier eating decisions. We need the Rider to be present to monitor our actions. Here’s how to do it:


Eat prior to the movies or going to the couch. To help limit this you can Shrink Your Plates by purchasing a small popcorn (even though, at AMC, a ‘small’ is still absurd). Or just do what I do: chuck half the popcorn at anyone who talks during the movie.  


If you live like I did in NYC, you probably eat most of your lunches at your desk. This all but guarantees that you snarf down whatever is in front of you without even realizing it. If you’re going to eat something less healthy, eat outside in a park or with other people. If you choose to eat with others, you’ll benefit if they tend to be healthy eaters themselves.


At the very least, change your expectations. It’s a near certainty that you will consume all or most of what you bring into situations like those above. Just assume you will eat it all.

This is not defeatist. It’s setting your expectations accurately to avoid a negative feedback loop. You don’t want to binge out every night, but if it happens occasionally, accept it and move on.


To use this tendency of ‘device distraction’ to our advantage, bring Amazon Prime Video to the treadmill or the bike. Time will fly by (especially if the dreamy, Matt Damon is on the tube). This also applies to salads or ‘health food’ you don’t want to eat. Chomp on it while you’re watching something on a screen.

Want more Tweaks? As Clubber Lang said to Rocky, ‘I got a lotta mo,’ a lotta mo’. Here’s 6 more, gratis.



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