Itstarts with an olive.
I use two fingers to hook a pale green Castelvetrano from its briny pool out of the jar in my fridge and pop it in my mouth. It is 5 o’clock, and I have a half-hour to prep dinner. My three boys are momentarily subdued by screens and the weight of the day hits me. It is time to unwind.
The olive is salty and toothsome and immediately takes the edge off while I get to work steaming broccoli and defrosting chicken. I reach for two more. But what’s an olive without a glass of Sauvignon Blanc? Its minerality is the perfect compliment, and there happens to be a bottle in the fridge.
Just a small glass, because I am not trying to get inebriated before the kids get to the table.
I warm up buttered egg noodles and check to see if they are too hot. A spoonful slip into my mouth. They’re perfect. Chewy, buttery. I rummage through the fridge for some cheese for my youngest and slice off a wedge of aged cheddar for his plate. There is a small hunk left, so I nibble on it between two more sips of wine.
The house quiets, and a low hum settles over me as the meal comes together. I pivot from my cutting board to grab the silverware and reach for a handful of roasted almonds along the way. One-by-one I crunch through each savory nut. Quickly they disappear.
Oh. My wine glass is empty. One little last pour will wash down the remaining bits in my mouth.
Time for dinner. The boys clamor in and we all sit down to eat. I fill my plate, and afterward, the sink fills with dishes. I get to work with cleaning and plates surround me with bits and pieces of leftovers. It would be a shame to throw them in the trash.
This is what grazing looks like, and it is a common way people unknowingly overeat. It was part of my routine most of my adult life and went unnoticed until I decided to get serious about losing weight.
Simply put, it is a habit of eating informally, in small, unportioned mouthfuls. In the last year, I decided to put all the bites, licks and tastes that passed my lips every day onto an actual plate. I took stock of exactly what I ate every day behind my own back.
The amount surprised me. I mindlessly consumed the equivalent of a small meal in all the quick grabs I did around the kitchen during cooking and clean-up. But at the moment they felt like a flash in the pan, never legitimate sit-down fare that nourished and satisfied.
Munching on tidbits was an extension of the prep process, a part of decompressing and a way of going through the motions. It was natural, instinctual, and habitual. It was so thoughtless it felt uncontrollable.
The compound effect of grazing is more than just the accumulation of calories tacked onto a routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner. And if calories are an important metric for you, it is safe to assume each nibble is worth about 50. Most of us are not noshing on celery sticks.
Where grazing hits us hardest is not weight gain, but mindset. Every time you choose to eat mindlessly you reinforce the habit. Your brain gets the signal that this is how we operate. When it is time to pull out the knife and cutting board, reaching for snacks along the way is a seamless part of the work. At the stroke of 5 o’clock, the brain sends hunger signals because this is when it usually gets a dopamine hit, not at 6 when you sit down to eat.
The more you succumb to the urge to sneak tastes here and there, the quicker it becomes the default. The harder it is to be around food without indulging in whatever is within reach.
An unconscious approach to snacking while cooking often spills over into a general unawareness around eating. And not being aware is the equivalent of letting food run the show.
Suddenly you feel powerless like you are eating against your own will. When all along you programmed your brain to capitulate to every senseless craving. The mind remembers. But the good news is that if you can train your brain to adopt one habit, you can also teach it learn another.
But how? Start with planning exactly what you will eat at least 24 hours in advance. This engages the prefrontal cortex region of your brain which is more deliberate in making choices for wellbeing, rather than impulsive and reactive to what looks good in the moment. Commit to eating only what you planned, and notice any temptation to taste, bite or lick between meals. Practice allowing those urges to be there, unanswered with food.
Yes, it takes time, and consistency helps it happen faster. But if you want to lose weight, and take back control over your relationship with food, awareness must come first.
You can still have the Castelvetrano olive. It just needs to go on your plate, with the rest of your dinner.