You Are How You Eat

We eat while reading the newspaper. We eat while watching T.V. or checking email. We eat while packing the kids’ lunches (over the sink, Moms?), breaking up sibling scuffles, or trying to keep an unruly toddler from throwing every bit of her dinner on the floor. We eat while working or cleaning up or driving. Necessary multitasking, we call it. If we want to eat at all some days, we just have to work it into the mix. I know how it goes. I have my Big Ass salad at my desk nearly every day while I write. The pattern, however, has the potential to sidetrack our best goals, not to mention spoil a good meal. Researchers have increasingly found that the more noise, the more stress, the more distraction we face when we eat, the less satisfied we are.

The result of this constant distraction is easy to guess. We lose track of what we’ve eaten. We end up eating more. We enjoy eating it less. Subjects in a recent study, for example, were instructed to play a computer game while eating. Not surprisingly, they didn’t recall what they ate as well as subjects who ate their lunch uninterrupted. The game players also reported feeling less full and ate more at a second snack time 30 minutes later.

The link, researchers explain, is the environmental and cognitive cues that help define our sense of fullness. We’ve all heard that it can take 20 minutes or more for the body to realize it’s full. (That’s why we suggest in The Primal Leap that you ask yourself not “am I full?”, but “am I still hungry for the next bite?”) Given the physiological “gap” time there, we develop our own ways to gauge when we’ve had enough. Most of us have a pretty good idea of how much food will fill us up. We tend to serve ourselves the same amount of food most of the time in keeping with that principle. If we are not in a position to serve ourselves, we unconsciously or consciously sense how much it’s going to take to satiate us. When we’re distracted, however, we’re not paying attention to those cues, those innate estimations. We’re unable to even remember how much we’ve eaten to begin with, and our memory is obviously key to our internal, cognitive gauge.

Distraction, it turns out, can also influence our sensory experience of food itself. In one study, blindfolded participants were divided into groups that wore headphones and listened to white noise – soft and loud – or to no noise while eating. The louder the white noise, the study showed, the blander subjects rated their food in terms of sweetness and saltiness. Hmmm…transfer that finding to eating in front of the television.

Brian Wansink of Cornell University is one expert who’s focused on the phenomenon of “mindless” eating. In addition to the regular distractions we indulge in while eating, Wansink says our multitasking causes us to grossly underestimate how often we make food choices to begin with. In one of his studies, participants were asked how many times a day they made decisions about eating. Although their responses averaged about 15 times, further questioning revealed many more choices – more than 200, in fact. The additional questions got at the lesser considered details of subjects’ meals – when and where they ate as well as what and how much. Wansink emphasizes that our eating environment and circumstances, whether we consciously choose them or not, can influence our overall diet. We might make better choices, for example, if we eat at certain times of day or at a place away from our desk or the kids’ chaos. Note to self.

Even after we’ve left a stressful environment or come home at the end of a long, taxing day, however, we still might bring baggage to the table. In one study, women participants who were exposed to jackhammer sounds while solving math problems ate more of the offered snacks after the activity than those who weren’t subjected to the sound.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time discussing what to eat while living the PB, but there’s clearly more to the picture. How does eating fit into our day? Where do we eat? When? How much choice do we exercise in these decisions? Do we come away from the table satisfied and pleasantly fulfilled? Do we approach each meal with conscious intention and pleasurable expectation? What, if anything, stands in the way of realizing these ideals? How can we set ourselves up for better enjoyment and success?

I love a good Primal recipe as much as the next person, but I also know that being happy with an eating lifestyle depends in part on the experience of dining. Dining. There’s a concept. It has different connotations than simply eating does, eh? How often do we allow ourselves to dine? I know when Carrie and I go out for dinner with the intent to take the time to enjoy it, there’s a real sense of relaxation and “content” that follows. How much time and attention do we devote to really savoring a meal at home – the taste, the texture, the interplay of flavors? When we sit down with the family or with friends, do we fully experience both the pleasures of food and company? Does eating sometimes feel more like a necessary chore to be worked in rather than an opportunity to relish a sensory event? Oops, time to clear the table, clean the dishes and get back to work…

Here’s a thought for today: eating can and should be a fulfilling experience. It’s about more than simply filling your stomach and even recharging your body. Eating is simultaneously indulgent and sacred. It can be a time for observation – both sensory and personal. Yes, life in all its hectic complication makes it difficult to sit down to – let alone prepare – an experience akin to Babette’s Feast at every meal. Nonetheless, how could you weave a little more enjoyment into your everyday eating? What would it look like? What, if anything, in your Primal life would it change?

Share your thoughts, and have a great day, everyone!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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69 thoughts on “You Are How You Eat”

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  1. Great post. I’ve thought about this a lot as well. I’ve found that meals at work are often disturbed, and I feel more panicked about eating it all than when I’m at home eating. For this reason and others, my daytime meals are small and I only eat them when really necessary. At night when I unwind is when I really pack it away, and its GREAT food that I’ve sourced and cooked myself. When I have a busy night planned, I typically just don’t eat much – its too rushed and I hate it! haha.

  2. I sit at my desk, but instead of watching an episode of Friends like I used to, I’ll turn my monitor off, turn any music off and really savor the meal. Closing the eyes helps.. but only if you’re on your own 😉

  3. Timely post again!

    I was just thinking yesterday that my roommates and I need to stop eating supper in front the TV. I’ll give it a go tonight!

  4. I think I’ve seen Babette’s feast, or something with the same premise, and I really loved that message. I definitely enjoy eating and in Primal I found the balance between really enjoying what I eat and eating what really loves me back. Being fully conscious of the food and the eating experience is a breeze now that I actually care about the fuel I put in my body and I’m no longer trying to dig my grave with a fork. Honestly I don’t think where or when you eat matters one whit compared to WHAT you are eating and fully experiencing the enjoyment it can bring. I can multi-task, but my mouth is a single-tasker – reveling in the nom! Being free from the guilt of eating crap frees me to enjoy 1000% what I eat. Food is fuel, but when your fuel also tastes amazing (and doesn’t slowly kill you), it’s win all around.

  5. Very timely! Over the last six weeks the winter has been so harsh here, and the outdoor temperatures so low, we have taken to keeping one room warm and started eating our meals on a tray in front of the fire in the sitting room. This is also where the netbook/laptops are so inevitably we have drifted to multi-tasking as we eat. I have gained 3 kg in the last few months and I definitely snack more during the evening after I’ve eaten. I think there may be some Pavlovian behaviour modification going on, the dining table is no longer the only place food is consumed … and where do we spend most free time, especially at the moment, by the fire which is now being associated with eating … mmm … back to the dining table from tomorrow!

  6. I would think that our paleolithic ancestors multi-tasked while eating (dining) around the campfire. They nourished their body, and their mind too, through communication of feelings and ideas.

    Watching the television while eating is just a neolithic version of feeding both the body and mind. No biggie. Although I would agree that it is more in line with an evolutionary lifestyle to eat/dine with your favorite hunter-gatherer friend(s) and exchange views and ideas in person rather than with texting.

    1. ‘watching TV … feeding the mind’ mmm depends on what you are watching! There is very little I would consider mind-nourishing on TV these days!

      1. Good point about availability of TV programming.

        I am fortunate enough to be able select my programming from dozens of cable channels and several internet sources. Indeed others may not be as fortunate.

        I don’t watch much TV but when I do, it is usually while I’m eating diner alone. Again, not ideal, but works well enough when there is none to dine with.

        I try to leave the Zen moments for my exercise and meditation activities.

        1. When I lived on my own (with housemates, but on different schedules) I used to get so lonely when I ate my breakfast. The only thing on at the time I ate was Mac Gyver. Not my first choice in television, but it took away a bit of the lonely sadness when I ate. I think a lot of it has to do with your environment and your perception of it.

  7. I’m a public school teacher. We have about 20 minutes to eat lunch (and that’s what the kids get as well).

    I have a placemat, napkins, and other picnic type ware that I try to use to make my short lunch a little more civilized, but it doesn’t always work. When you factor in a bathroom stop (before and/or after), the other interruptions, your lunch time is really closer to a short 15 minutes.

    It isn’t conducive to overall health or weight loss/maintenance.

    1. No, it isn’t, and it isn’t a good example to set the next generation either. The way (nevermind the what) we are eating nowadays is setting up further problems downstream I think.

    2. Tiki Jane I’ve been especially interested in how being a teacher will impact my Primal living. I’m starting a Master in Teacher program in March and will enter the job market in the summer of 2012. I’m sure I’ll find a way to stay primal as a teacher, but I’d love to know how being a teacher has affected your primal lifestyle.

      1. I’m a teacher too, although I’m not in the classroom this year. Teaching is primal because it involves moving around a lot rather than sitting at a desk. There’s also the social factor; your department and/or classes are your tribe. BUT one thing very un-primal, at least for me, was the chronic stress.

        1. I do move around a lot during the day, but my day is a long one and it’s a long time from my 6:15 breakfast to my 11:00 lunch. There’s no real time to snack during work hourse, either. My biggest problems are breakfast because I don’t have a lot of time and I have never been able to eat Grok style in the early am, and lunch – with its 15 minutes of fame.

    3. Oh My Tiki Jane, You poor thing. Who negotiated that contract? I am a public school teacher as well. We get 40 minutes.

      1. We used to get that and more. But high schools, at least, are trying to cram more into the school day and lunch gets lost. Imagine the kids – 20 minutes, half of which can be spent in line waiting for french fries.

        1. Yeah, my students would go insane on that sort of schedule. We’d have a revolution on our hands. The kids really need some down time during the day.

  8. I often eat only once a day. I make that a meal to remember. I might have veggies with my family at dinner but my main meal is earlier. It seems to work for me, a reluctant cook, I put effort in and sit down and savor.

    In fact that reflects a lot of how I approach life. I might do it infrequently, but I make it matter.

  9. I noticed i always eat less when i am eating with somebody. when i was a kid i used to insist somebody (mostly mom) to sit with me if i am eating and did not know why but i always wanted to talk and have some stroies to tell while i was eating. It really sucks to eat alone. three things i liked since my childhood; never eat alone, dont eat in dark (if possible eat outdoors especially lunch)and go for a walk after dinner.

  10. Absolutely! We’re in the process of “meal training” our 3 year old daughter (potty training long done thank gawd) and, as much as i can find fault with my typical post-WWII upbringing if i try – we always had to observe a table-presence for eating – more relaxed at breakfast and lunch – but definitely strict at dinner. This has – in retrospect – served me very well and when reaching adulthood – it really aided in my sincere enjoyment of a good dinner (in a nice restaurant before i got so damn picky) as well as a really nice ritual with my family and friends.

    I have always noted the dissatisfaction with my meal when i have, on rare occasions, eaten it reading, computing, or watching the tube.

    Why would one go to all the effort to prep a fine eat and then toss your attention elsewhere?

    I try to go with the yogic observation about being in the moment – “when i walk i walk, when i eat, i eat” (mmmm)

    1. “I try to go with the yogic observation about being in the moment – “when i walk i walk, when i eat, i eat” (mmmm)”

      Very profound. Humans are not capable of multitasking. We think we are but we aren’t! To live in the moment is to devote 100% of our mind on the task at hand. All this multitasking is one of the reasons the human population is in the shape it’s in! I honestly believe trying to multitask makes us less intelligent.

  11. Funnily enough, I have been taking breaks to eat for the last year… because we were forced to! Our building has a mouse infestation, and that means we can only eat in designated eating areas…. a big pain in the butt when I am having a busy day, but it also forces me to take a break and sit down one on one with my food, the only distractions being the chatter of my colleages which is actually pretty interesting sometimes! At home I am funny about always eating at the dinner table even when no one else does (it is only my husband and I). He eats in front of the TV every night but I can’t stand eating like that… my food just slops everywhere, and the distractions make it hard to enjoy what I am eating.

    We had a strict upbringing too when it came to dinner… sit down at the table, no elbows or leaning over our food, no shovelling it in…. and here is a funny one, no singing! Didn’t really understand that but my dad was a stickler about that rule! lol

    1. My mom also had the no singing rule. My grandfather was a stickler for things like elbows, and he had about 7 kids around the table. I imagine no singing had a combination of avoiding annoyance, as well as food being projected out of your mouth.
      I encourage my daughter to play with her food, as long as she eats it. Singing about how yummy something is is fine as long as it sticks in with the “don’t talk with your mouth full” rule that I do agree with.

  12. “a family that eats together stays together” is a saying, it is important. Hunter gatherers feasted as a group off the kill together as a unit.

  13. Or better yet just get rid of the cable all together. It will allow you to find more enjoyment in all those things outside of your house you have missed. Best decision I have made since purchasing my own home after college.

  14. I have to laugh, as I often eat lunch at my desk, while reading this site! Like today, ate my lunch while reading this post. I also often eat with my coworkers around a common table, but we don’t always take lunch at the same time. I must say, my Butter Chicken lunch from the reader cookbook was simply delish!!

  15. I’ve found that, at least as the lone wolf that I am, the ability to cook my own meals nearly every night is a reward in itself. Being able to simply sit down, read the Time Magazine or National Geographic that’s been sitting on the table for a couple days while savoring my food has an effect simply absent, or opposed, during the times where I’m at work, tensed up and simply throwing leftovers down the gullet.

  16. I, too, am one of those people who eats infrequently throughout the day. I feel like this really helps me to relish the experience. I eat once-maybe twice during the day (of course there are days where this is different, but this is my typical pattern) and I have never felt better. I used to have an eating disorder; so my day was consumed by pick-pick-picking my food, nerves, mutli-tasking and never even beginning to taste the garbage that I was putting into my body.

    Nowadays, every sip, every bite… it’s truly heavenly. I usually eat my food sitting on the floor, chatting with my husband. We don’t have cable. We rarely eat while watching films.

    Food is something that I feel is best enjoyed when IT is the main focus; story telling and sharing of thoughts accompanies well! 🙂

  17. I like to throw on some good classical or jazz music with my favorite bowl full of salad in front of me at my desk, and just close my eyes and absorb all the unique flavors of each bite.

    I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  18. Great post today! Our family tries to enjoy a leisurely meal at our dinner table every night. It’s difficult (with work and school schedules) but we manage to do it most nights. I find I eat a lot less and enjoy my food a lot more when we’re all sitting together talking, laughing, and eating.

  19. If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s dining with people who feel the need to make useless observations about the food, such as “the steak is good! mmmmmm”

  20. Interesting topic

    One of the main reasons I do not watch TV anymore (or if I do its via DVD or prerecorded) is the food triggers that program you to continiously feed your face. So bye bye TV.
    I will eat in front of the PC, but only while I’m reading something, not while I’m playing something, it does make a big difference.

  21. It takes me a MINIMUM of one hour to eat a meal. I’m a very slow eater, even when I feel like I’m barely coming up for air.

    So I like to have something else going on, like reading or watching Netflix, otherwise I feel like I’m losing a couple hours every day.

    1. Chicken or the egg. maybe you eat slow because you aren’t directing your full attention to the task at hand? lol

  22. When you’re right, you’re right. I’m eating my grilled chicken and salad while catching up on some wholesome blogs before I go back to studying.

    P.S I found your new book on Amazon and already preordered. Exactly what I need 🙂

    P.P.S. My girlfriend has been making a lot of recipes from the primal cookbook, and they’re frikkin amazin! 🙂

  23. This really hits home for me. I really enjoy watching t.v. or reading a book while I eat but I find that when I do this I end up eating way more than I would normally and not enjoying the food nearly as much. Inevitably I almost always end up cracking open a jar of almond butter and wolfing it down with everything I can get my hands on. It gets to the point that I don’t enjoy what I’m eating at all. I will have to make the effort to just eat when I eat.

    1. Gawd!
      I can totally relate to this….on 3 consective occassions recently I have eaten immediately after my meal and have actually finished a jar of peanut butter in 3 sittings all immediately after a meal….always, always eat in fron of the tv….have to, just have to break this habit.

  24. No cable or satellite here, but with a 12 week old baby, mealtimes are odd, especially dinner. When we can, we sit down and eat at the table, but more often than not she’s fussy so we take turns. I do tend to multitask or read then, though, I’ll have to watch that. Lunch for me is either a leisurely affair, or a one- handed grab for a leftover chicken breast before I sit down for ‘milktime’ lol

  25. Nice post Mark.

    Although I do find that reading/working makes me eat less, something like watching a movie could probably make me eat more.

    Working/writing can sometimes stop me from eating altogether.

  26. I find myself eating faster when the kids require more attention at dinner. I sometimes wonder how Grokette got through meals with her brood… maybe she just had more kids so they could look after each other!

  27. I agree with the sentiment here but for someone’s lifestyle who’s life depends on constant movement it’s important to know portion sizes, what healthy choices are and how to eat quickly. I enjoy a nice meal as much as the next person — maybe even more because I get to relax and eat so rarely, but for my life I know that I rely on experience to judge portion sizes and specifically chosen foods to meet my physical and mental demands.

  28. Almost every day, I meet my wife for lunch & we go the the park so we can talk & then walk around for a bit. It’s not really “dining”, but it’s a little more relaxing than eating at the cubicle.

    We always sit down and “dine” at dinner time though. We talk about the day and I find that we eat a little slower and enjoy the meal more. That’s usually my first meal… so later on I have something else & just kinda “eat” it, but I might have to rethink that now.

  29. For breakfast I stand up at the counter and take about 15-20 minutes to eat… I will eat about 1/4 to half of my meal and clean up a little, eat a little, clean up a little, etc. This seems to help the digestion process.

    For lunch I sit down and enjoy my big ass salad while talking to a few co-workers and/or reading a magazine.

    For Dinner I usually sit down at the table with my parents and sometimes sister.

    Which one do I prefer? All 3. I sometimes watch sportscenter while eating breakfast but only for a few. I enjoy eating while doing nothing as well as talking with family or friends. It just depends!

  30. Er… try eating a meal with a two-year-old. I haven’t had a fully peaceful, sitting-down, quiet, reflective meal in…about two years.

    I jest. I know there will come a time when I’m back to my quiet contemplative mealtimes, and I’ll remember the chaos and long for a little noise. Why the grass is always greener somewhere else would be a good post =)

  31. I do think eating a meal without distractions is a positive (and calming) thing. We always had formal sit-down dinners (at the table, no distractions) when I was a kid and it was an important bonding moment for the whole family as well as a time to enjoy and savour the food. We don’t watch TV when we eat and prefer to sit down and chat about the day and other things. After all, what could be better for your digestion & mood than a good, candlelit dinner?

  32. if i am how i eat then i am… indulgent (full fats), quick, thoughtful, sometimes forgotten, sometimes planful.. very loved, sometimes loathed, colorful, playful, rich, warm, healthy, primal, unintentionally forgetful, sometimes absent mostly present and mostly happy.

  33. Nice post, ta. I love this subject. Eating meals whilst sitting around the table with good food, family or friends is why the French and Italians, for instance, remain so far down the global “fat list” and far exceed the US in healthy longevity, I reckon.

    We make it a point in our house to eat properly.

  34. You made my day just mentioning Babette’s Feast. That’s my favourite food movie! I used to watch it every Christmas. 😀

    1. Same here :-). Not the Christmas routine, but seeing that movie mentioned made my day. I LOVE it. Saw it many years ago and never forgot it.

  35. I love to cook and I love to eat. I really love spicy HOT food but I’ve noticed that my stomach can not handle as much as on a SAD diet. Any tip for the 2 week primal?

  36. We have regular family meals — breakfast every morning, lunch with whoever happens to be at home (I am fortunate to be able to work from home), and supper every evening. No music or TV, just us around the table with home-cooked food and lots of conversation. We often light candles in the evenings, and the kids raise their glasses to toast just like we do. Our children are accustomed to this family routine and even the 15-month-old is a contributing part of it and has been most of her life. She’s child no. 3, so I’m now a pro at nursing a baby with a fork in one hand; the babies eventually learn to sit up and be in their own chairs at the table. First they just play with food but later they start eating it, and they enjoy being there with everyone paying attention to them. It’s hard for me to imagine eating any other way. It’s worth the time it takes to be fully present in every aspect of life!

  37. Given that stress inhibits digestive processes, I wonder what other problems we create by eating when not fully relaxed?

  38. I would recommend Brian Wansink’s ‘Mindless Eating’ – a really interesting book, informative, yet written in a very entertaining and highly readable style. Definitely worth a look.

  39. Huh… I’ve always enjoyed eating alone, especially next to a window. I do enjoy company and eating with the family, but it’s incredibly relaxing and satisfying zoning out while eating, watching the world gently go by (depending on where your window is…).

  40. “eating can and should be a fulfilling experience. It’s about more than simply filling your stomach and even recharging your body”

    I totally agree and as a fan of endurance activity, I get annoyed at how the focus is always on refuelling as quickly as possible. Yes that refuelling ‘window’ after a long run or bike is important but its a bit sad if you turn your life into calories.

    I love taking time to put together fresh ingredients, and enjoy the result sitting at a table with the TV turned OFF 🙂

  41. My daughter is six and every lunch is freshly cooked for the entire school. The kids all sit down for their meal (full crockery and cutlery) and before they begin the head master encourages them to enjoy the look and smell of the food, to take in the colours and be grateful for a moment for receiving the food. They then serve one another and tuck-in. They have 30 minutes for lunch, there is no canteen or junk food, and they are amazingly happy and well behaved kids. We are very lucky.

  42. I suppose this could be useful for keeping a high calorie count with a paleo diet. I notice a lot of people complain that they can’t eat enough because the food is too satiating. Now they can eat with a blindfold, with their nose closed, and while listening to loud death metal.

  43. Dear Mark,

    How about having only one meal per day?

    I have done it since I became paleo.

    Its some sort of intermittent fasting. I thing it helps to keep your insulin low.

    I eat only dinner. Most of the days grass fed beef with some vegetables and red wine. I do a huge dinner.

    During the day, I feel no hunger at all.

    Anyway, I am sill in some kind of plateau.

    What do you think about it?

  44. To me, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. The feat is we’re all going to do it, be busy and have to eat whilst being busy, just going to have to face that.
    The thing is, if I’m playing a game or doing something else(apart from watching tv because I don’t do that anyway)while eating and I don’t register what I’ve eaten and feel full.

    When I go out into the kitchen, as long as I’m grabbing another apple or piece of fruit, or handful of nuts, or square of dark chocolate, or plateful of mince, etc etc, I don’t think then it’s such a big deal.

    To the average American who grabs another packet of crisps, or deep fried treat then yeah that would matter but as it goes, reaching out for more of what we eat won’t affect us in the slightest.

    Great topic/post as always Mark, I can’t help feel though that it’s abit of an “unnecessary” point to make.

  45. In order to savor my meals I like to stop what I am doing and just focus on my meal. Listening to music also makes it more enjoyable.