A snack is a portion of food that is eaten outside of regular mealtimes. Snacking can even occur late at night, as you know if you’ve ever had a “midnight snack.” A healthy snack can give your body a boost of energy and extra nutrition, and keep you satisfied between meals. On the other hand, excessive snacking can be the result of poor dietary choices, or simply mindless or compulsive snacking.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, did you get in the habit of grabbing a snack every time you walked past the kitchen? Or maybe you keep a bowl of goodies handy to snack on during Netflix binges. And it’s easy to snack on cookies and treats when your Zoom class is just a few feet away from the fridge!
On a more serious note, do you tend to snack when you’re nervous, upset, or anxious? Have you ever felt the urge to eat a tub of ice cream or a whole bag of potato chips when you’re feeling down? Stress eating happens when your food intake is triggered by emotions (e.g. worry, sadness, boredom). If you’re like many people, the pandemic certainly hasn’t been good for our diets, has it?
The problem is, eating a lot of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can actually increase lethargy and worsen symptoms of stress – not to mention make you gain weight and put you at risk of developing diabetes. Eating frequently also increases the risk of tooth decay and gum disease, because the sugars and bacteria from decaying food stay in contact with your teeth and gums longer.
In contrast, a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids can not only provide sustained energy while supporting weight loss, it can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs. Eliminating the sticky, sugary foods also keeps your teeth healthier. Here are ten ways to stop mindless snacking, as well as suggestions for healthy snacks:
- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Avoid environments where you’re tempted to snack. That includes staying out of the kitchen! If there aren’t any snack foods around, then you can’t eat them. It’s that simple. Likewise, if you’re used to dining while sitting in front of your television, smartphone, or computer, try eating in a less distracting environment. Just eat your food, be done with it, and then go watch TV.
- Out of sight, out of mind. While having a jar of cookies or bowl of colorful candy on the counter may add to the visual appeal of your kitchen, this practice may lead to overeating. So it’s best to keep particularly tempting foods like sugary candy and cookies hidden in a pantry or cupboard. Also, avoid walking down the candy and snack food aisles altogether when you’re at the grocery store.
- Practice portion control. Put snack foods into smaller containers so you won’t be tempted to keep eating – especially the ones in BIG bags that allow you to grab a handful at a time. Only keep these foods around in small individual packages, single serving sizes, or individually wrapped snack sizes. Psychologically speaking, you’re more likely to grab another handful from a large bag, rather than open up an entire new bag, even if it’s a small individual size. It’s the same at mealtime – using a smaller bowl/plate can trick your eyes and brain into thinking that you’re eating more because your plate looks fuller. Use a pre-measured serving (make sure you use the portion size indicated on the label as your guide) and limit yourself to that serving.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger. Whenever you find yourself feeling hungry, have a glass of water before you reach for a snack. Drinking water will fill you up and prevent overeating. Adding a little fruit juice to your water to boost its flavor will help you drink more water throughout the day without adding a significant amount of sugar or calories to your diet. Sparkling water and tea are okay, but stay away from soda pop. To promote oral health when snacking, rinse your mouth with water afterward to remove food particles.
- Chew gum. When you’re highly stressed, filled with nervous energy, and running a caloric deficit, it can be a recipe for disaster in the form of stress snacking. Chewing gum will help you alleviate some of that nervous energy and give your mouth something to chew on that has no calories and isn’t going to ruin your diet.
- Identify your triggers. To change your snacking habit, you will need to find out what causes it. Maybe you tend to stress-eat only when studying, for example. If it’s due to sadness, loneliness, or boredom, find something to do that doesn’t involve food. Exercise is a great pick-me-up, so go out for a walk or a bike ride. If it’s a certain food that you crave, such as chocolate, try to gradually substitute a healthier alternative. (Chocolates –> chocolate-covered raisins –> raisins.)
- Eat regular meals. Structured eating times will help you spread your food intake over the day so that you’re less hungry at night. Focus on eating nutritious, satisfying meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner so you won’t experience cravings between meals or before bed. Studies have shown that people who skip meals — especially breakfast — are more likely to snack later in the day, resulting in reduced energy and increased weight gain.
- Stock up on filling, nutritious foods. Healthy, nutrient-dense foods include chicken, lean beef, fish, turkey, eggs, low-fat dairy products, almond butter, whole grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables and beans. These foods are quality sources of protein and complex carbs, which can help fill you up and keep you feeling full between meals so you’re not hungry all the time. Candy, chips, soda and other junk foods are full of empty calories with no nutritional value, so your body will crave more food to compensate.
- Plan ahead. If your schedule is unavoidably hectic, stock up on portable protein snack packs or make up a bunch of pre-portioned healthy snacks—sunflower seeds, almonds, raisins, rice cakes, cottage cheese or plain yogurt, fresh fruit or vegetable slices, individually portioned 1-ounce cheeses, string cheese, whole grain crackers, oatmeal peanut butter balls—and have them at the ready so they’re just as convenient for you to eat as chips, pretzels, candies, and donuts.
- Stay active. Physical activity boosts mood and alleviates boredom, which may reduce your chances of stress eating. Engaging in a hobby like knitting, coloring, or puzzle assembly can help keep your hands and brain occupied while watching TV, so you’ll be less likely to think of reaching for a snack. Even better, put your exercise bike in front of the television!
Do you have a tip to share about healthy snacking habits? Leave a comment!