You’re power-walking to work, steaming oceans of fish and cutting down on carbs. So why aren’t you losing weight? We investigate a modern dieting downfall

Camilla W., 39, an accountant from Bristol, thought she was doing everything right. In her drive to lose 8lb before her wedding, she swapped white carbs for brown, steamed her vegetables, grilled her fish and power-walked for 25 minutes a day just as every health expert and weight-loss website advised she should. “After two months, I hadn’t lost a single pound,” she says. “I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. All that effort, all that horrid brown pasta!”

Do you eating have amnesia?

Do you eating have amnesia?

Then, one day, when she was complaining about it at work, a colleague suggested that maybe she should stop having those 250-calorie smoothies every day. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. “I had never even considered them as part of my diet. Nor did include the slice of rye bread at home (before my ‘proper’ breakfast of yoghurt and granola at my desk) or the half bottle of wine I shared with my fiancé most evenings. I just assumed my main meals were the ones I had to be careful with. I may not have been eating crisps or chocolate, but I was somehow consuming 500-600 extra calories a day that ‘didn’t count’. I started using my iPhone calculator to monitor the calories I was consuming and within three weeks of readjusting my habits I’d lost 5lb.”

It’s a phenomenon that health experts call ‘eating amnesia’ – the act of not consciously registering what or how much one has eaten. Ask any nutritionist or dietitian for their secret to weight loss and the words you’ll hear are ‘mindful eating’. But, as Camilla proves, it isn’t easy to achieve. Technology is coming to the rescue, with smartphone apps and downloadable therapy that can help us become aware of our unconscious eating habits. But how does this happen in the first place?

“In order to process millions of pieces of information every day, our brains delete the irrelevant, such as snacks and unscheduled eating,” says Sandra Roycroft-Davis, a cognitive hypnotherapist and behavioural specialist practicing in London’s Harley Street. Roycroft-Davis has developed Slimpods, ten-minute downloadable voice recordings that, she says, “put people in control of what they put in their mouths. People who are overweight delete and distort what, when and how much they eat. They don’t even realize it sometimes, going onto autopilot, especially if they snack in front of the television or while on the phone. A colleague says that, in meetings, she can eat entire packets of Maltesers without registering it. Often it’s about being busy, stressed or bored, and in some cases it’s emotional and about comfort”.

But it’s not just overweight people falling into this trap – it’s women like Camilla: healthy, active and acutely aware of their conscious consumption, but somehow oblivious to a few slips. It’s the latte that you ignore because it’s just ‘coffee’, not a rich froth of sweet-flavoured milk. The fish finger you polished off from your toddler’s teatime plate, because it was cut up into small pieces and you ate it standing up while wiping the high chair. The slice of a colleague’s birthday cake you wolfed down between meetings while your mind was on sales figures. It’s the four large glasses of wine you drank on a nerve-wracking first date with the man who finally asked you out. Such is the ease with which eating amnesia occurs.

In some cases, the blankness comes about because confronting weight issues is just too painful. Forgetting to register the excessive, empty but crucial calories eaten each day removes the blame. We all know the phrase, “I only have to look at a doughnut and I put on weight,” but sometimes we’ve actually eaten the doughnut without really noticing. It’s an unpalatable truth that may explain the injustice of gaining weight while supposedly being so restrained.

Dr Jane Cartwright is a GP practicing in Oxfordshire. Every day, she sees at least one person whose weight is an issue in itself or is contributing to other medial and emotional problems. “Women’s perception of themselves is often hugely emotive,” she says. “They are it’s a vicious circle: they eat and then deny they have done so to me, to others and most of all to themselves. Women with young children finish off their kids’ food because they don’t like the waste and it’s easy. It’s not a proper meal. Some are so busy they completely forget, but often it’s a case of not actually registering that they’ve eaten. Or they’re embarrassed to admit it.”

To help modern busy women become more mindful of their eating, new, high-tech tools are appearing. Along with Slimpods, smartphone apps such as Noom Weight Loss, MyFitnessPal and FoodRemindr track your calorie intake and send you on screen pop-up prompts that you can personalize. For instance: “Liz, it’s time for your mid-afternoon nuts and fruit.” These regular reminders aim to stave off hunger, which in turn could prevent instances of oblivious eating. They also suggest clever tips such as repackaging food into smaller, portable snacks, so that you’ll have two crackers or biscuits in your bag rather than a whole or biscuits in your bag rather than a whole packet.

Jane Holliday, director of Making Things Easy, suggests keeping a photographic food diary on Instagram or Activ8RLives a new app designed precisely for this. The idea is that dieters can be accountable to their followers, in much the same way as people on Facebook and Twitter register runs with the Nike tracker app. The camera won’t be lying, so the dieter might feel guilty about cheating or be less likely to ‘forget’.

It’s this simple idea of keeping a food diary that’s proving to be the most effective way to control our unconscious eating. In a recent six-month-long study published in the American Journal Of Preventive Medicine, dieters who kept a food diary for six days a week lost twice as much weight as those who only did the diary for one day a week or less.

you’ll have two crackers or biscuits in your bag rather than a whole or biscuits in your bag rather than a whole packet.

The American College of Preventive Medicine and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine are delighted to invite you to the first ACPM-AJPM

Sophie Shakespeare, 41, previously an airline manager and now a busy full-time mother of three, used to be an eating amnesiac. She was recently asked to take part in a study for the National Diet And Nutrition Survey. This involved keeping an incredibly detailed food diary for ten days and, like Camilla, she was shocked to discover how often and how much she was actually eating. “It was the high sugar content,” she says. “I wasn’t not aware, but I hadn’t realised the extent of the chocolates and cakes. I felt so embarrassed having to tell someone else about this, in great, gross detail (breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner!), I thought the woman who interviewed me would think I was a complete pig. She wasn’t judgmental, but I was tempted to chop several things off the record and realised I had, in a sense, been doing that subconsciously all along.”

The instinct to kid one-self is strong, but the benefits of resisting the temptation can be enormous. Catherine Chichester, a nutritional therapist who set up the prestigious Village Barn, a centre for optimum health near Chipping Northon, says she always asks clients, “What did you eat yesterday?” And, she reveals, the reply is almost always the same. “Every time, they say, ‘Ah, yesterday wasn’t a typical day,’ because they don’t want to admit they ate or drank anything we all know is bad for us. I don’t believe they’re deliberately fiddling, but the subconscious mind does funny things and it all adds up.”

Mindful eating in our busy lives is clearly harder to establish than we think, but it seems that the secret of success lies in this basic act of recording our consumption. Whether we do that digitally, with pen and paper, or develop a mental awareness of every mouthful is down to personal choice. But the knowledge that eating amnesia has such a significant impact on our weight may finally be what snaps us out of those bad habits.

“Keeping a food diary is the most effective way to control unconscious eating”

Keeping a food diary is the most effective way to control unconscious eating

Keeping a food diary is the most effective way to control unconscious eating

Fighting the food blank: How to overcome eating amnesia

§  Keeping a food diary and be meticulous. Have it on your smartphone, email yourself daily or write it in a notebook. Don’t cheat – you are only cheating yourself.

§  Write down everything that goes in your mouth, however ‘insignificant’.

§  Measure food, using visual examples such as the palm of your hand for portion control.

§  Never eat food from other people’s plates.

§  Finish a glass of wine before pouring another,

§  Avoid eating standing up or in front of the television.

§  Savour every mouthful in restaurants and don’t be tempted by the bread while waiting for your food.

§  Use a small plate – it really does work.

§  Ask yourself the questions, “Am I full? Do I need more or do I just want it?”

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