The good news: After a rough year and a half, many people are finding their way back to something like “normal” (even if it’s a new normal).
The bad news: We picked up some not-so-helpful habits during our time underground. You’re not alone if you’re emerging from your cocoon feeling a little worse for wear!
There’s no time like the present to start shedding those bad habits so you can get back to being the glorious butterfly you’re meant to be. For a lot of people, priority number one is getting their eating back on track.
“Help, I Can’t Stop Snacking!”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this in the past few months. Are we surprised? What with all of us stuck at home bored, overwhelmed, and in close proximity to the kitchen, snack attacks were bound to happen.
Let me go on record as saying that I don’t think snacking is always a problem. Yes, we’re big fans of intermittent fasting around these parts, and snacking is widely maligned in the ancestral health world at large. I haven’t forgotten that Mark’s most recent book is called Two Meals a Day!
There’s no denying that some folks make significant health gains when they start eating less frequently. At the same time, the empirical evidence for or against snacking is decidedly mixed. Some studies show that frequent small meals or snacks impair weight loss, glycemic control, appetite regulation, and various health markers. Others find that snacking is neutral or even beneficial for these same parameters.
As for the “humans aren’t meant to snack” argument, depending on their food environments, our paleolithic ancestors probably “snacked” as they foraged for plants that didn’t require cooking.1 You’re telling me that every one of those delicious berries made it back to camp? I think not. However, that’s not at all what snacking looks like today. Where modern humans run into trouble is with overconsumption of hyper-palatable, low-quality, pro-inflammatory foods. That concept would have been totally foreign to our ancestors, but it’s what most people mean when they say they “can’t stop snacking.”
If you’re stuck in a snacking rut, here are six things to consider:
Stop Snacking Strategies
Set Up Your Environment for Success
The lowest of the low-hanging fruit is to get rid of the snack foods in your environment. By “snack foods,” I mean the ones you have a hard time avoiding even when you’re not hungry. The ones you eat out of boredom or that you consume mindlessly. Foods that make you ask, “Why am I still eating this?” even as you keep putting more in your mouth.
This can be challenging when you live with people who aren’t on board with your way of eating. Family members and roommates might say they’re supportive. When the rubber meets the road, and you try to throw away all the chips, suddenly they’re less enthusiastic. If you can’t get rid of unsupportive foods, the next best thing is getting them out of sight. Designate a “not for me” cabinet and don’t open it. Ask roommates to keep certain foods in their room. Put a snack shelf in the garage instead of the pantry.
If snack foods mysteriously end up in your cart when you grocery shop, take advantage of online grocery shopping and curbside pick-up. You’re less likely to impulse buy this way. Try not to shop when you’re hungry or feeling emotionally vulnerable.
Practice Mindful Snacking
At its core, mindful eating is about tuning in to what you eat. As with any mindfulness practice, the goal is non-judgmental awareness. When you eat mindfully, you pay attention to the tastes and aromas of your food, the pleasure (or lack thereof) you’re deriving in the moment, and sensations of fullness. These observations help you choose foods that make you feel good and eat the appropriate amount of food for your body.
When it comes to curbing mindless snacking, the first step can be as simple as asking yourself, “Do I really want this?” If the answer is anything other than, “Definitely!” take a pause.
Mindless snacking has a lot in common with cravings in that they’re usually both driven by motivations other than hunger. Understanding why you wandered into the kitchen again allows you to make an informed decision. Are you actually hungry, or do you need movement, mental stimulation, rest, or comfort? A handful of salty trail mix is delicious, but it’s not the solution if your problem is that you got four hours of sleep last night, your boss just berated you on a Zoom call, or you’re totally and completely over the ennui of living through a global pandemic.
Maybe you are just a little hungry. In that case, enjoy the trail mix without judgment and without distraction. Step away from your laptop and give yourself a few minutes to focus on eating. Savor your snack, then stop when you’ve had enough. But if you’re not, what do you need to fill the void that you were going to try to fill with snacks?
Restructure Your Meals
If you’re frequently hungry between meals, chances are that you’re simply not eating enough at mealtime.
Folks who practice intermittent fasting may be especially susceptible to undereating. Based on the questions we get in our Facebook communities, many people struggle to eat enough calories, and especially enough protein, in a compressed eating window. Eating in a slight caloric deficit might not be a problem depending on your goals. However, failing to get enough protein will trip you up, if for no other reason than you’re unlikely to feel satiated (but for other reasons, too).
Meal frequency (how many meals?) and meal timing (when do you eat them?) both matter for health, but neither matter as much as eating enough nutrient-dense foods. That means that if you’re struggling to nourish yourself in one or two meals a day, adding a third meal or a substantial snack in between meals is probably the right call. Yes, even if you have to extend your eating window.
Likewise, if you’re delaying your first meal until you’re completely famished, you might be digging yourself into a hunger hole you can’t get out of no matter how much you eat later in the day. Consider eating earlier in the day, and make sure your first meal is a hearty one. I like the taste of fatty coffee as much as the next person, but it’s not a meal.
Choose Supportive Snacks
If you’re going to snack, opt for your typical Primal fare as opposed to “snack foods.” Based on the studies that found snacking to be beneficial, it’s best to snack on whole foods instead of hyper-processed foods—no surprise there—and include some protein or fiber for satiety.234
When possible, treat snacks more like small meals. Choose the same foods you would eat for a meal, just less of them. Primal-friendly grab-and-go options include:
Before you grab a snack, try moving your body for a few minutes. A short exercise break can dampen cravings5 and distract you if you’re feeling snacky out of boredom or malaise. If you still want a snack after you finish, hey, at least you got a short workout in.
When you think about it, microworkouts are like movement snacks—quick, bite-sized, and satisfying.
Take a Nap
Every single time I write about hunger or cravings, I urge people to sleep more. Today’s no different. Sleep deprivation increases the desire to snack.6 And, when you’re tired, you’re less likely to gravitate towards those supportive snack options listed above. You’re going to be drawn toward more energy-dense, carbohydrate-rich foods.7
The bottom line is, it’s going to be hard to break your snacking habit if you’re chronically tired or otherwise not nourishing yourself—literally or figuratively.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.