The Mindless Margin – Applying Mindless Eating Outside of the Kitchen

HaMindless Eatingve you ever started snacking on a bag of potato chips only to find you inhaled most of the bag and even though you’re disgusted with yourself you continue on until the bag is completely empty? Yup I’ve done it too (more times than I care to admit). I came across a book recently called Mindless Eating authored by Brian Wansink that explore this phenomenon and other lousy eating habits. Wansink explains the term Mindless Eating as:

Mindless Eating 2Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.


In other words, the environment you’re in dictates your eating habits more than your willpower in the moment. That’s probably not a revelation to most people, but Wansink gave one nugget that really stuck with me:


The brain doesn’t immediately know when the stomach has had enough food. Instead, the brain uses external queues like an empty plate (or extra large bag of chips) to stop eating.

Being aware of this behavior trap is not enough to change it. I suspect you have already heard that plate sizes matter, but past recognition doesn’t matter in the moment when you’re eating. Wansink calls this the Mindless Margin. Damage from the Mindless Margin can be limited when you engineer your environment in advance to give your future self the appropriate queue at the moment when you’re actually eating. In some cases, Wansink suggests that the Mindless Margin can actually help people lose weight. Apparently a person who has a fruit bowl visible her kitchen weighs 8 lbs less (on average) than a person who doesn’t.

Fruit Bowl


The overall theme of Mindless eating is that small changes (with hardly any sacrifices) in your kitchen (and other eating environments) can lead to significant impacts in your eating habits and overall health over time. I agree wholeheartedly with Wansink and think his book is well worth the time to read, but also think his principles be applied beyond eating.

Law&OrderThe Mindless Margin can easily be transferred to time management. I’ve mentioned before that I constantly feel busy and I usually feel like I’m rushing to finish my day to get to bed. I used to get sucked into watching reruns of Law & Order on TNT almost every work night while I stretched after going for a run and making myself dinner. Somehow the real activities I had to do, which should only take 1 hour, got mindlessly stretched into 3. I have engineered my environment by cutting the cable cord, so TV is less of a problem than it used to be. However I still struggle with Time Vampires. Many times I find myself reading articles from spammed emails from LinkedIn, or even worse I falling for clickbait on Facebook. That steals 30 minutes of time I would have preferred to read, or reflect, or meditate, or sleep.

Do you also struggle keeping these seemingly manageable distractions at bay? The only thing I can think to minimize the clickbait problem is to set an alarm clock when I clean out my email inbox out at night to give myself fixed time limit. Do you have any other clever suggestions?

As always, thanks for reading and I’d love to read your thoughts on topic.


P.S. If you want to learn more on Mindless Eating but don’t have time to read Wansink’s book yet then check out his TEDTalk on the topic: 


7 thoughts on “The Mindless Margin – Applying Mindless Eating Outside of the Kitchen

  1. Good post! I am impressed that you set an alarm to stop mindless inbox clearing. I get sucked into who knows what. Don’t get me started on Mindless Eating. I need to check out this book. Re: the margin though – I always wonder about the fruit basket… people with healthier choices available at hand lose weight OR people who are really committed to losing weight make healthier choices more convenient?

    1. That’s an interesting question Erica. I don’t think of it as an OR question. It’s more of a Chicken & Egg question. Which comes first? I don’t think good habits start by accident. The commitment has to come first. If you want to start eating healthy you need an environment that supports the habit. The fruit bowl is the start that cascades into reinforcing habits.

      The fruit bowl reminds me that I should eat a banana instead instead potato chips. The positive feelings remind me I should buy bananas again on my next trip to the grocery store. And while I’m in the produce section I notice mangos are in season so I buy that too.

      Who needs potato chips when there’s great fresh fruit in my fruit bowl?! I don’t even want potato chips in my house anymore! That stale bag of potato chips has been sitting in the back of my cupboard for 3 months. Gross! Better just throw that away.

      Voila! Habit formed. It’s magic!

  2. Interesting post. I engage in way too much mindless eating especially from the bread/breadstick basket that accompanies all my Italian meals! 🙂

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