Might Face Masks Decrease Mindless Eating?

Adjusting to face coverings may prevent mindless calorie intake.

Posted May 05, 2020

We passed by our local Italian bakery on the way home from a long walk. Face masks in place, we stood at the door and ordered coffee and then, enticed by the smell of newly baked croissants, gave in and bought one to share. 

As we prepared to drink our coffee and munch on the croissant, we both realized that we could not do either without removing our face masks, and we could not do that until we moved to a place on the sidewalk where no other people were around. With the masks hanging down around our chins we tried to eat and drink without spilling the liquid on the mask, or filling it up with crumbs. As good as our treat was, it would have been better to eat it sitting down at a small table in the bakery shop, or the bench outside its door, as we previously used to do.   

But perhaps the awkwardness of wearing a face mask when attempting to snack spontaneously might be a blessing. I suspect that had we thought about how we were going to have our coffee and croissant while attempting social isolation on a busy sidewalk before we ordered our snack, we would not have done so. And the next time we pass the bakery shop, we probably won’t.

But the impact of the face mask on altering eating behavior may go further than preventing a takeout order. Might the face mask alter our eating patterns at home as well? Think of situations when we are mindlessly eating... We put food in our mouths either with our fingers (nuts, cookies) or with an eating utensil like a fork or spoon (fries, ice cream). Our mouth is ready to receive the food, and the morsel may be consumed so quickly that a few seconds later, we can’t remember that we actually ate anything. How often have we nibbled at a broken piece of cookie as we remove cookies from a baking sheet, or popped a few cherry tomatoes in our mouth as we are making a salad without really noticing? I keep a bowl of M&M’s on a small table right inside my front door and often smile at the number of guests who take a handful as they come in or leave our home.  

What if they were wearing face masks? Of course, if they needed to wear masks, they would not be coming to visit because of social distancing. But hypothetically, I would assume that as they realized they would have to pull off the mask to eat the candy, they might not have taken any from the bowl.

Maybe we have stumbled on an effective way of decreasing mindless eating. Having a mask over one’s mouth increases the time between the impulse to eat, obtaining the food, bringing it to the mouth, and then… removing the mask! Might the time it takes to fumble off the mask in order to put the food in the mouth be enough time to change mindless into mindful? Would taking off the mask so it does not become stained with chocolate or the tomato cheese sauce from leftover pizza be sufficient so the potential nibbler says, “Do I really want or need to eat right now? And if so, should I be eating chocolate or leftover pizza, or something that is more nutritious and less caloric?”

It is unlikely that face masks will be worn inside the home, unless there is concern about the transmission of the virus between people residing in the household. But imagine the benefit of doing so. A former weight-loss client struggled with preventing herself from snacking as soon as she returned home from work. “One arm would still be inside the sleeve of my coat,” she told me, and the other reaching inside the refrigerator for something to eat.” If her face mask were on, would she have slowed down her foraging for food and eating? Or for those who have difficulty in not consuming all the leftovers, especially dessert, while cleaning up the kitchen after a meal, wearing a face mask might prevent the remnant of a pie from being eaten rather than being stored in a plastic container.

It has been said that wearing masks has decreased touching our mouths and noses with our hands. Obviously, if our mouths and noses are covered with a piece of paper or cloth, our hands can’t reach them. And it is hoped that we will unlearn the habit of putting our fingers on our faces.

Maybe the face masks will also help us unlearn the mindless habit of putting nibbles in our mouths. Unlike an old dieting device of wiring the jaws shut so only liquid could be ingested (it never worked because weight was regained quickly when the wires were cut), face masks are removable. And that may also be helpful in weight loss. One of the problems with mindless eating is that we tend to deny to ourselves it is happening. Sometimes when we are upset and engaging in emotional overeating, we eat spoon after spoon of ice cream, or chip after chip until there is no more. The urge to start the emotional overeating is often so strong that it overwhelms our self-restraint. If a face mask was being worn, the need to start an emotional overeating binge might make us rip off the mask and plunge into the bag of chips... But the act of taking off the mask might raise some alarm bells as in, “Do I really want to start this binge?” or having the mask nearby might cause us to think, ”If I put the mask on now, I will be able to stop eating.”

The goal of controlled eating is to rely on our internal brain-generated controls over food intake, not external controls like face masks or locks on the refrigerator. But now especially, when most of us are too close to our kitchen for calorie control comfort, maybe keeping a face mask on in the house is not such a bad idea.