What you’ll learn here
Wondering how you can stop (or at least manage) unhealthy snacking?
Well, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there. And by there … I mean in front of the fridge and opening it for the 3,764th time to grab a snack.
The next thing you know, you’ve polished off 3 cookies, 5 Oreos, and what seems to be an entire chocolate cake from last night’s birthday party. Not a good sight – especially if you’re trying to cut down on your calorie intake.
And the worst thing of all? You know that mindless snacking is unhealthy. But you just can’t seem to stop yourself from walking into your pantry!
So, what can you do?
Take a deep breath, I’ve got you. Here’s how to manage unhealthy snacking.
#1: Out of sight, out of mind
If you have a snack that you always snack on uncontrollably (e.g. sweets, cookies), make it more challenging to get your hands on.
Put it in an out-of-the-way place, like the top shelf of a cupboard you can only reach with a ladder, so it’s not in your line-of-sight all the time. Like they said: out of sight, out of mind, right?
It sounds simple, but this tip really works when it comes to how to stop unhealthy snacking!
Illustrating this is a 2006 study, which compared the snacking habits of the following two groups of secretaries who were given Hershey’s Kisses in (1):
- Clear bowls (they could see the candy within)
- Solid bowls (they could not see the candy within)
The researchers found that on average, those given clear bowls reached out for candy 71% more often, and consumed an extra 77 calories per day.
Another option you can consider is a time-locking container. You know, containers that feature a count-down timer, and will only unlock once it hits ‘0?’ If you find yourself reaching out for the ladder more times than you’re sending out emails, get yourself one.
Keep your snacks somewhere out of reach; as they say, out of sight, out of mind!
#2: Keep a journal
Have you been planning and tracking your workouts with a fitness journal to ensure progressive overload over time?
Well, there’s a journal for your nutrition too!
When you keep a food journal, you tend to be more mindful of not only what you’re putting in your mouth, but also how it makes you feel when you’re eating it.
So, here’s how to make an entry for your food journal (2). Be sure to write down what exactly you’re snacking on, why you’re choosing that snack, and whether you’re (actually) feeling hungry then.
This will help you greatly by increasing your awareness of your eating habits.
Not to mention, shed some light on the times of day when you’re most likely to graze unknowingly. This understanding can then remind you to stop unhealthy snacking (3).
For example, if you know that 3 pm is often a ‘time of weakness’ for you, be sure to fill it up with another activity. Maybe schedule a meeting during that time? Or, stay one step ahead of your urge by having a healthier alternative prepared in advance.
On a separate note, improving your self-awareness can be a great way to understand and refine your approach towards not just how you eat and train, but also how you live your life.
Keeping track of everything you’re putting into your mouth can help build awareness of your eating habits. And this plays a crucial role in learning how to stop unhealthy snacking.
#3: Don’t throw your rubbish away too quickly
The truth is that we often rely on external rather than internal cues to decide whether we feel full or hungry.
We count calories with our eyes instead of our stomachs.
Picture 5 sticky, empty Snickers wrappers in front of you. Now imagine that there’s only one on your desk. Which scenario made you feel fuller? I’m willing to bet it was the first. And research agrees.
In a 2007 study, researchers gave participants an unlimited number of chicken wings while watching a long, televised sporting event (4).
The participants were then randomly assigned to two groups:
- Those who had their table continuously cleaned
- Those whose bones were allowed to accumulate
Guess what? Participants whose chicken bones were left to accumulate ate 34% less (or 2 fewer chicken wings) than those who had their tables cleaned!
If you’re still not convinced that you need to leave your wrappers around, this 2005 study might just do the trick (5). Here, researchers used bottomless bowls to slowly refill some participants’ soups as they drank (without them realizing). Sneaky, sneaky!
Those who drank from ‘self-filling’ bowls consumed 73% more (roughly 113 extra calories) than those who drank from regular bowls.
And yet, they didn’t believe that they’d consumed more, nor did they feel fuller than those who’d drunk from regular soup bowls.
So, when it comes to the secret of managing unhealthy snacking, it’s simple: keep evidence of what you eat on your desk!
Use visual reminders (aka wrappers) of the foods and drinks you consume to stay mindful of just how much you’ve already eaten.
#4: Stay hydrated
Of course, you’ve heard it a million times before already: stay hydrated! But be honest. Have you actually done so?
It’s crucial that you drink more water throughout the day – even if you’re not as physically active as before.
That’s because mild dehydration is often masked as feelings of hunger when really, all that’s happening is your body needs fluids.
The confusion takes place in your hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that regulates both appetite and thirst.
So, you should know what to do to stop unhealthy snacking, right? Stay on top of your fluid intake! Start with having a glass of water first thing in the morning. Then, you want to keep a filled water bottle right within reach from your working station.
And whenever you feel hungry, or peckish, try drinking some water and waiting 15 to 20 minutes to see if your hunger subsides.
More likely than not, it will.
And if you’re physically active, keep in mind that you’ll have a higher requirement for hydration. More importantly, learn how to hydrate around your workouts.
When it comes to how to stop unhealthy snacking, the key is to make sure you stay well-hydrated throughout the day. This prevents your body from mistaking thirst for hunger, leading you to eat more when all you need is water.
#5: Buy single-serve packages
Since you’re likely to eat what’s in front of you, it’s time to beat yourself at your own game, my fellow Unhealthy Snacking Club member.
On your next trip to the grocery store for essentials, pick up smaller, individual-sized packs of your favorite snacks. Smaller, pre-portioned packages help reduce the likelihood that you’ll eat endless amounts in one sitting.
Research backs this up, too. A meta-analysis found that when people are given more food, they tend to eat more (8)!
And sure, you may be tempted to reach for that second pack of crisps after finishing one.
But the extra step of having to open a new package gives you time to think, ‘Is this what I really need right now?’ Also, this tip works perfectly with tip number 3: ‘Don’t throw away your rubbish too quickly.’
Seeing those packages pile up (even if they’re single-servings) can give you a much-needed shock and stop you from reaching out for more.
Buying single-serve (or smaller) packages can help you reduce the number of calories you eat without you even noticing.
#6: Use smaller serving bowls and plates
The unfortunate truth is that we tend to want to eat things with our eyes.
So, if you fill a big bowl full of corn puffs, you’ll probably feel like you need to eat all of it to feel satisfied.
But if you fill a smaller bowl with your corn puffs, it still sends a signal to your brain that you’re getting in a lot of food (the bowl is full) – despite you actually eating less. Major life hack.
This sounds good and all, but where’s the research?
I’m glad you asked. Studies show that we tend to eat 92% of the food we serve ourselves (9). Imaginably, if you take a smaller portion of food, you’ll end up eating less. Because, math.
Simply using 24cm (9.5-inch) plates instead of 32cm (12.5-inch) plates can help you eat up to 27% less food! Let’s say your dinner was initially supposed to contain 500 calories. Just the act of opting for a smaller plate shaves 135 calories off your meal!
Can I just say, easiest weight loss method ever? Just don’t knowingly compensate for a smaller plate by stacking up more food on your plate.
Oh, and don’t forget about the calories you drink, too. Use tall, thin glasses instead of wide, short ones. Doing so can reduce the amount of fluid (aka calorie-loaded beverages) you pour yourself by up to 57% (10).
One of the easiest tricks when it comes to how to stop snacking is to use smaller bowls and plates. Your brain will think you’re eating more since we tend to eat with our eyes instead of our stomachs.
#7: Chew slowly
You must have heard this before: those who eat slower tend to eat less, feel fuller, and rate their meal as more pleasant than fast eaters (11).
Guess what? The same concept applies to snacks too!
The slower you chew on that midday muffin, the more time your stomach has to notify your brain that you’re full. More specifically, it allows more time for your body to release hormones that make you feel full (12).
To slow down your snacking, try keeping your snack on the far end of the table, or eating with your non-dominant hand so snacking requires extra effort.
Here’s a bonus tip for all who are not exactly proficient with the chopsticks: use them while you’re snacking! The frustration might just help you stop snacking for a while.
And besides, it helps keep your hands clean, too!
Slowing down your snacking is an easy way to cut down on the number of calories you consume. And besides, it increases your satisfaction levels, too.
#8: Question whether you’re actually hungry
This tip might sound obvious, but ages of unhealthy snacking while watching TV, running through that financial report, or whatever it is you do – can disconnect you from your hunger cues.
Many of us no longer recognize true hunger.
By treating every hour of the day as ‘snack o’clock,’ we end up having less appetite for our regular meals, which just perpetuates this evil cycle of eating when we’re not hungry.
So, before you reach for that popsicle, pause, and check-in with yourself.
Be honest and rate your hunger levels on a scale, with ‘1’ being stuffed (like you’ve just been to the buffet) and ‘10’ being so hungry you’re on the verge of passing out. Come in at a 7 or higher? Definitely eat something.
Only, be sure to re-evaluate after a few bites. Don’t overeat!
Wondering how to stop snacking? Well, one of the easiest ways is to ask yourself if you’re eating because you’re genuinely hungry!
#9: Don’t multitask while snacking
When you snack, put away your phone, iPad, laptop, TV, book, etc.
For example, individuals watching TV while eating their meals ate 36% more pizza and 71% more Mac & Cheese (17)! And if you’re a fan of snacking while binge-watching shows or movies, here’s some more bad news.
It seems that the longer the show, the more calories you’ll end up eating.
A study found that those who’d watched a 60-minute show crunched through 28% more popcorn than those enjoying a 30-minute show (18)!
So, in light of these findings, what you should really do from now on is spend some uninterrupted time with your snacks. Approach them as you would a first date. Give them all your attention.
Concentrate on chewing and actually tasting it. Doing so helps you feel more satisfied and, in turn, aware of how much you’re actually eating.
Eating without any kind of distractions (TV, phone, laptop, Ipad, etc.) can decrease the amount of food your body needs to feel full and satisfied.
#10: Stop purchasing a large variety of snacks
Loading up at the supermarket feels oh-so-satisfying (especially in these times), but having a ton of different snacks at your disposal increases the odds you’ll snack on a lot of it at once!
You know, the kind that sees you putting a handful of Cheetos, two scoops of granola, and three tablespoons of peanut butter onto your bowl. (See why you need a smaller bowl?)
In fact, research shows that having access to a wide variety of food can lead you to eat up to 23% more (19)! This phenomenon is due to something called ‘sensory-specific satiety,’ where your senses tend to get numb after you’re exposed to the same stimulus many times.
You can only eat so many Oreos before you start to get sick of it.
And so, if you want to manage your unhealthy snacking, stop buying so many different types of snacks.
Reducing the variety of snacks you have can help prevent you from eating more than what your body really needs to feel satisfied.
#11: Make sure you’re clocking in enough sleep
Ever noticed that you’re extra hungry the day after pulling an all-nighter (or only getting in 5 hours of sleep)?
To understand why you need to be aware of two hormones which play an important role in controlling your appetite and satiety (24):
- Ghrelin – Stimulates appetite (causes you to eat more)
- Leptin – Suppresses appetite (makes you stop eating)
When you don’t get enough sleep, ghrelin levels go up, and leptin levels go down. And that means you have a greater amount of appetite, which means you’ll be eating more throughout the day. You know what that means, right?
Yes. More snacking!
So, if you want to cut down on the number of times you’re opening the fridge in the middle of the day, you need to get enough rest.
Besides, sleep is essential to recovering from your workouts, too!
How much is ‘enough,’ though? Well, the official recommendation for most adults is anywhere between 7 to 9 hours every night (25).
And if you’re having trouble sleeping, try going to bed at roughly the same time every night; having a consistent sleeping schedule allows your body to ‘automatically’ power down once it’s time to sleep (26).
The stalking can wait till tomorrow.
To get you started on more zzz, here are some useful tips on how to sleep better.
A lack of sleep can mess up the hormones that regulate your appetite. Make sure you’re getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night.
#12: Maximize food volume
A snack (or two) is fine.
I think most of us would agree that snacking only becomes a problem after three (and more!) servings in a single hour.
Thankfully, there’s actually a super-easy way to keep yourself satisfied (and full) after a single serving. And that is to maximize the volume of the snacks you choose to eat. I can already hear the question marks forming in your mind …
“Doesn’t that mean more calories?”
Well, no. Think about it. A packet of fries contains way more calories than a whole watermelon.
But eating a watermelon (not advising that you do, of course!) will keep you fuller for longer than a packet of fries. Eating a large volume of food ‘tricks’ your brain into thinking that you’ve eaten way more calories than you did – making you feel satisfied (29).
And less snacky.
So, how does this tip apply to your afternoon trips to the pantry? Simple. You need to pick snacks that are high in volume, yet low in calories. The best option is usually high-fiber foods with low-calorie density, like fruits and vegetables.
If you do have to snack, choose those that are high in volume, yet low in calories. An increased food volume tricks your brain into thinking that you’ve eaten many calories – which helps activate your fullness response. Thus, making you less ‘snacky’.
#13: Keep busy
To be honest, few of us snack because we’re hungry. Instead, we’re just keeping our mouths (and hands) busy because we’re bored.
And boredom is truly one of the most common reasons for unhealthy snacking, so don’t sit around doing nothing! By now, you must have some idea of when you usually have some down-time to yourself.
That period is when you’re most vulnerable and susceptible to the temptations of what lurks beneath your cupboard, fridge, and pantry area.
You need to account for this.
Plan what you’re going to do during this time, so you’re kept busy. Let’s say that your lull period typically lasts between 4 pm to 4.30 pm. Would it be possible for you to fit in a quick, but effective workout? Or perhaps, a quick catch-up call with the parents?
Whatever it is, keep busy!
If you’re working from home, here’s an article on making your home workouts effective.
Boredom is one of the most common reasons behind unhealthy snacking. So, always keep yourself busy, so you don’t end up eating when you’re not even hungry in the first place.
#14: Eat regular, satisfying meals
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll stuff yourself on snacks at 3 pm when you’re still feeling satisfied and happy from your well-balanced, nutritionally-complete lunch at noon.
So, what does it say when your stomach is constantly rumbling throughout the day? That you’re not eating proper meals, of course!
But what do ‘proper’ meals look like?
First, they need to have a good amount of all three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. The quality of these macronutrients matters, too. You want to get in enough micronutrients, which are essential for the optimal functioning of your body.
And what this means is that you’ll need to make sure that each meal you’re eating includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, along with healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil.
Being full and satisfied can help you stop unhealthy snacking.
Eating regular, well-balanced, satisfying meals can help stave off the hunger pangs in the afternoon. This can be immensely helpful when it comes to how to stop unhealthy snacking.
#15: Schedule your snacking time in advance
Think you have to cut out all forms of snacking if you want to maintain a calorie deficit and lose weight? Here’s a secret: you don’t.
You can have your cake and eat it too (quite literally.)
And all you have to do is to plan for it. Include your snacks’ calorie counts into your daily ‘budget.’ What you can do is take some time to pre-pack all your snacks into a ‘one-time serving’ pack.
This way, you’re way more likely only to eat that preset amount, and have something to look forward to after that dreadful 2 pm meeting. Who knew learning how to stop unhealthy snacking could be so easy?
You could also schedule your snacking time close to your workouts, so you not only get some much-needed energy in before sweating it out, but you’re also happier and more motivated to exercise.
Snacking can be a way for you to stay on track of your fitness goals. Only, you need to plan for it, so you know exactly how much you’re eating and when you’re eating it.
Bonus tip: beware of ‘healthy’ snacks
Who doesn’t love a bonus tip?! So, here’s one.
Now, we all know that donuts, pretzels, and chips are ‘unhealthy’ snacks. They’re high in so many Bad Things, like calories and trans fat. To make matters worse, they’re incredibly low in nutrients too.
And so, in our attempts to clean up our diets, we may opt for ‘healthier’ or ‘guilt-free’ snack options like granola, trail mix, and dried fruits to satisfy those mid-day cravings.
But here’s the truth.
Thanks to clever marketing, many of these snack options are essentially junk food in disguise – loaded with sugar, saturated fats, and other additives that diminish their nutritional value.
Just to let you know, some energy bars actually contain as much sugar (if not more) than a Snickers bar.
Don’t assume that labels such as ‘raw’ or ‘natural’ automatically equate to ‘good for you.’
Even if they’ve really compelling taglines like ‘keto-friendly favorites’ for those on the keto diet, take the extra time to study it in detail. In case you’re wondering whether the keto diet is worth trying, here’s a useful article exploring how the keto diet works.
Sugar is still sugar, after all. And they will ultimately count toward your total calorie intake for the day!
Another reason why you should be wary of ‘healthy’ snacks is that you could end up eating more (calories) than you would have.
Think about it: have you ever eaten more nuts just because they were, well, healthier? Or ‘treated’ yourself to a Subway cookie because you ate a salad for lunch?
Don’t worry; you’re not the only one. As it turns out, we’re all susceptible to something called the ‘health halo,’ where we unconsciously overeat foods that are considered healthier or compensate for them by having a side of something less healthy (33, 34).
To prevent this, try to pick snacks based on their ingredients, instead of their health claims.
Study their nutritional information before you make the purchase! Also, remember to pay attention to the food you ‘treat’ yourself to.
Not all snacks labeled ‘healthy’ are good for you. Be sure to scrutinize the ingredient list and nutritional information before purchasing snacks in the future. Also, avoid rewarding yourself with eating more or unhealthy sides just because you ate ‘healthier.’
Be kind to yourself, unhealthy snacking happens
In these trying and uncertain times where we’re all bored, anxious, and stressed, it’s understandable why we’d seek relief by eating all day.
So, if you do find yourself powering through that fifth bag of crisps for the day, don’t beat yourself up. And perhaps more importantly, don’t give up on eating healthy because you’ve ‘already eaten so much today, anyway.’
That kind of ‘screw it’ mentality isn’t going to help you out in the long-term. Instead, you want to get back on the saddle and take it day by day; every day counts.
Trust me; you can do this!