Bad habits can be hard to shake. While snacking itself isn’t inherently unhealthy, sometimes emotional cravings, being bored, or becoming stressed can all lead to mindless eating or “unconscious snacking.”
In order to change your habits, you have to interrupt the pattern of behavior. As we all know, this is often easier said than done.
We asked a few nutrition experts their advice on how to stop mindlessly snacking.
Set boundaries for yourself.
Robert Glatter, MD and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, is saying that you can channel self-control by getting into the habit of choosing healthier snack foods. Then you can work on portioning out your snack foods to avoid overeating.
Try to eat slowly.
Glatter also recommends slowing down when eating.
“Eating slowly is also one of the most important behaviors to adapt. Eating slowly helps to slow digestion, and re-calibrates your body to better determine if you are eating truly because you are hungry, or secondary to emotion.”
If snacking is an emotional habit, focus on your feelings rather than food.
Glatter is saying that using food as therapy can be a slippery slope.
“The key is to retrain your brain to focus on your emotional state, and use alternative techniques to replace hunger with more pleasant feelings so you won’t be tempted to binge on snack food unconsciously,” he said.
Start tracking your snacks in a note on your phone, or in a physical notebook or journal.
Food journaling is an excellent way to be mindful of your snacking, Mike Roussell, a Ph.D. with a doctorate in nutrition.
“When keeping your food log it is important to not only record what you are eating when you are eating it but it is also important to jot down some notes about how you are feeling and why you are eating,” Roussell said. “What is the driving force behind why you are eating … does your body need calories or is there another reason? [Food journaling] will start to bring awareness to what, when, and why you are eating.”
Make unhealthy snack foods less accessible.
If tempting foods are taken out of the equation, you’re less likely to graze.
“It is important not to leave food and snacks just lying around for you to eat whenever you want,” Roussell noted. “Making it more difficult to eat snack foods will greatly reduce the amount of mindless eating you are doing because if the snacks are hard to get, getting them will require conscious thought and thus the snacking will not longer be mindless.”
Stop associating snacks with rewards.
Charles Passler, who has reportedly worked with model Bella Hadid on her diet, said that from an early age, some people are programmed to equate food with reward.
“So many parents will still give junk food or sweets to children as a reward for being good or achieving goals. When the child gets the snack, they get a dopamine surge in their brain because they have been recognized for doing well by their parents,” Passler said. “With that in mind, I’ve seen so many people unconsciously snack who feel under-appreciated in their lives to get that dopamine jolt related to appreciation from their childhood.”
Keep an eye on sugar content.
Sugar triggers our dopamine levels to spike. The response is addictive, so you just keep going.
“Avoid sweets as much as possible when you snack,” Passler warned. “When you consume them they can quickly raise and lower your blood glucose levels. This can make it harder to control your emotions and abstain from more unconscious snacking.”
Avoid snacking while scrolling, watching TV, or using the computer.
The food you eat deserves your full attention in order to really enjoy the experience. When you watch television through dinner or grab a snack while you work up to a deadline, that’s when mindless eating is at its prime.
“While we’re distracted, we can mindlessly finish much larger portions than we actually need. We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to decide if we’re actually hungry, or to realize when we’ve had enough to eat,” Kelly Krikhely, a registered dietitian. “Getting into the habit of turning off all screens when you sit down for a meal can help you tap into your hunger cues and limit portions.”
Change your mindset.
Eliza Kingsford, a licensed psychotherapist, says that “the goal is to train your subconscious to develop a new set of beliefs that are serving you.”
“Try saying, ‘I don’t drink soda,’ rather than ‘I can’t drink soda.’ One statement implies intentionality and a core belief … It’s a statement about your core beliefs about who you are, and you want to train your unconscious brain to adopt new core beliefs,” she said.