“My meals are actually quite healthy. I think I just snack too much. I think that’s why I can’t lose weight.”
I hear this from people all the time. So I wanted to show you exactly how you can kick your own snacking habit. Because mindless snacking can easily undo your hard work and stall your weight loss.
Whether it’s the snack bowl at work or munching in front of the tv, snacking is a super easy way for loads of sneaky calories to creep in completely unbeknownst to you. That’s what makes it so hard to manage. When you snack mindlessly you don’t know how much you overeat.
While people are often aware they snack too much, they don’t really know what to do about it.
That’s what I’m here for though.
Because by the end of this post, you’ll have an action plan for getting your snacking and your weight under control.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Identify when you snack
What time of day is it? What are the circumstances around your snacking? Is it at work during the 3am slump? Is it at night after you’ve already eaten dinner?
I want you to get really specific about when you snack, not just with the time, but the environment and surroundings.
What else is going on? Is the tv on? If so, what kinds of things are you watching? Are you socializing? Are you by yourself?
Write down 3 lines describing what your snacking looks like from an objective outside observer.
The next bit is when things get a little tricky.
Step 2: Identify what emotions you attach to snacking
The problem with compulsive snacking is that it’s extra -- it seeks to satisfy something other than the body’s nutritional needs.
Compulsive snacking happens for reasons other than hunger.
Often it happens after you’ve already eaten a meal, after your hunger needs have been met. Given that snacking (especially of the late night variety) happens after your caloric needs have been satisfied, snacking leads to a caloric surplus i.e., weight gain.
But more importantly for this section, it means there’s some emotional need here that isn’t being met.
Your job now is find out what emotional need(s) you’re trying to fill with snacking. For me, it’s often boredom, anxiety, stress, or as a distraction. Or all of the above. For you it could be different of course.
I want you to really examine your emotions around snacking.
How are you feeling before, during, and after? What are you hoping to get out of it?
Here’s a list of emotions I borrowed from Brene Brown’s website to help you out. Identifying emotions by name is something that can be quite difficult so I reckon having the terms in front of you will give you some clarity:
And I’ll add a few of my own that are really common triggers for snacking:
- Not wanting to fucking deal
The point here is that snacking, if not driven by hunger, is driven by emotion.
Ultimately, some emotion is the trigger for your snacking. So you need to identify which emotions trigger snacking and what emotion(s) you seek to feel from snacking.
To help understand why this aspect is important we have to look at how habits form.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains something called the habit loop.
Basically humans have habits because of the evolutionary need to save energy. Because when behavior is a habit, your brain is on autopilot. No thinking required.
Less thinking, less energy, more efficiency.
“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Over time, this loop -- cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward -- becomes more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”^1
Using this knowledge of the habit loop and your own emotional triggers/rewards, you can methodically engineer a healthier habit to replace snacking.
Step 3: Come up with alternatives
Now you know when and why you snack.
The next step is substituting snacking for something that will satisfy that same need you’re trying to fill by snacking.
- You have your trigger(s): how you feel and/or what happens that signals a craving for snacks.
- You have the behavior: Snacking
- And you have the reward: The feeling you want to get out of snacking.
You can’t just remove a habit away without replacing it with another behavior. The void has to be filled somehow.
The next step is to replace the snacking behavior with something that will provide the same reward as snacking.
For example, say you snack to deal with stress. Then you’d want to replace snacking with something else that made you feel relaxed, maybe going for a walk, reading a book, or doing some stretching.
In terms choosing a trigger for your new habit, you can look at it in a few ways.
You could say, “Whenever I’m stressed I’ll go on a walk”. Or you could say, “Whenever I have the craving to snack, I’ll go for a walk”.
Both phrasings/perspectives can help you build more self awareness around this behavior. But it’s up to you to decide which trigger resonates more-- the emotion, the craving associated with the emotion, or even some event that happens alongside snacking.
That’s essentially it.
Swap out the snacking behavior with another behavior that fulfills the same need. Choose a trigger to signal you to practice this new behavior.
Then, you just have to practice it.
Be prepared to slip up, forget, and/or override your new habit at times. It’s ok. Just move on. If you try this for a few weeks and the snacking cravings remain as fierce as ever, I’d recommend reflecting a bit more on your snacking habit. Perhaps you thought it was stress, when it was actually stress + another emotion, or something else entirely.
No doubt, after spending a few weeks working on this new habit, your self awareness skills will have developed a bit so you may come up with new realizations upon repeating the steps outlined in this post.
Think of this all as an experiment. Most people don’t get it right the first time. And that’s ok. Don’t get frustrated.
Just view slip ups as more data. Now you’re closer to getting it right. Thomas Edison is credited with saying “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Now, I hope you won’t have to fail 10,000 times, as Edison did (I also hope you won’t electrocute any elephants, as Edison did), but this attitude is helpful in dealing with “failures” and mistakes.
Point being, building new habits takes time, trial, and error. Be patient, mindful, and creative.
You will conquer the snacking habit. And once you do, you’ll lose weight, your health will improve, and you’ll have a better relationship with food and your body. It takes some time and work, but it’s worth it.
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. N.Y. New York: Random House Publishing Group.