Snacks often have emotional, mental, social and cultural baggage attached. Photo: 123RF.com
Can't resist the call of the crunchy, salty or sugary snack fix? You're not alone.
According to a survey published by the USDA, snacking has doubled over the past 30 years. On average, these snacks contribute a quarter of the calories we consume on a given day - leading to the logical conclusion that if you're trying to slim down, adjusting your snacking habits could be a smart step to jumpstart your weight-loss journey.
That's easier said than done, though. Snacks aren't always about needing fuel to burn for energy. They often have emotional, mental, social and cultural baggage attached, requiring an assessment of what calls you over to the candy bowl.
We consulted the research, and reached out to nutrition expert Keri Glassman, author of The New You and Improved Diet, to uncover 10 reasons you can't stop snacking, and how best to overcome your constant cravings.
1. You're bored?
A 2012 study published in Health Psychology found participants cited boredom as their reason for eating, more than any other emotion. "If you know boredom is a trigger for you, you need to have a few set controls for that trigger," Glassman said. She suggests making a cup of peppermint tea or reading a magazine you've been saving, thus turning your snacking alternative into its own (calorie-free) treat.
2. You're sad?
Though boredom tops the list of emotional eating triggers, the blues could also send you toward the cookie tray. A 2014 study from the Journal of Nutrition found that women with depressive symptoms were more likely to consume energy-dense foods like chocolate or pastries. If a setback like a breakup or a layoff has sent you reeling, Glassman suggests applying the same strategy as you would for boredom-fueled munchies: "The point is, you need to have your set control." When you feel those blues coming on, use your go-to alternative, whether it's calling friends, lacing up those running shoes or a beautifying self-care routine.
3. Your kitchen is a mess?
Peter Walsh's book Lose the Clutter Lose the Weight suggests that a messy environment might be making you overeat by stressing you out and pointing you away from the fresh, healthy stuff. Clear out the clutter and use your home goods to maximize your health: "Those gorgeous glass containers you bought to organize with? They are perfect for pre-sliced and washed carrots and peppers," Glassman said. "When you open the fridge and see those rather than a slimy pepper shoved in the back, you'll certainly be more motivated to eat them." And avoid working from home in the kitchen - if you're surrounded by food, you'll be more likely to reach out and grab something without thinking twice.
4. Your significant other can't stop snacking, either?
That in-love 'happy fat' you've heard about? Science backs it up: Spouses in satisfying relationships don't try as hard to maintain their weight because they don't worry about attracting a new mate, according to a 2013 study in Health Psychology. New relationships can come with increased couch time, and if you find yourself going bite-for-bite with a movie-night snacker, you can pick up pounds and bad behaviors. "If you're staying home, incorporate your healthy habits into the evening," Glassman said. "Use it as an excuse to make a healthy recipe you wanted to try."
5. Your lunch doesn't have enough protein?
If your weekday lunch consists of a pile of poorly-dressed salad greens, your mid-afternoon "hanger" will send you to the vending machine - and the resulting sugar spike will have you running back for more an hour later. What do you need instead? Protein. "Protein promotes satiety," Glassman said. "It digests slower than carbs, keeping you more satisfied." Researchers from Cambridge University and the University of Sydney agree. Volunteers whose meals were made up of 10-percent protein consumed an average of 1,036 extra calories over four days compared to their 15-percent protein counterparts. Put a piece of grilled chicken or fish on that salad and fuel up with eggs or nuts at breakfast to feel and stay full.
6. Your snack doesn't have enough protein, either?
If you need a 4 pm fix, stay away from the added sugars. Instead, go for the aforementioned protein and grab some nuts or nitrite-free jerky. Nuts are the total snack package: Packed with protein, easy to carry around, perfect for portion control, and apparently a life-lengthener. A 2013 article in the New England Journal of Medicine found an inverse relationship between nut consumption and mortality. It doesn't hurt that they're delicious, either.
7. You're surrounded by goodies?
The proximity and visibility of a food can increase your consumption of it, claims a study in the International Journal of Obesity. And with omnipresent office snacks filling your co-workers' cubes and the break room, it's harder than ever to avoid temptation. How can you try to stay healthy with all of these yummy snacks around? "Bring your own," Glassman said. "If you're more likely to eat what you see, make sure you're looking at whole foods like fruits and veggies." If you can't avoid the snack spread all together, try to time it and go by right after you've eaten a healthy snack so you're less likely to snatch up a brownie.
8. You can't say "No"?
From the office party cake-cutter to the hyperactive hostess, there's always someone handing you an off-limits treat, despite your best intentions. For people pleasers, saying no feels impossible. How can you shut them down while projecting politeness? "Have a set response that you are confident and ready to say," Glassman suggests. "That way there's no hemming and hawing." She suggests saying, "No, thank you, I just ate," but any short and sweet response should shut the cupcake pushers up.
9. You were raised to graze?
Our grandparents wouldn't recognize a 100-calorie snack pack, but for millennials, snacks are just a fact of life. The Journal of Pediatrics found that while sizes of snacks have not necessarily changed that much from 1977 to 1996, the frequency of snack time has increased, thus causing a higher calorie consumption from snack foods. If you grew up with cookies and chips at the ready, you've got to go back in time and start eating like Grandma. "Snacks do not have to come out of a bag or a box," Glassman reminds us. "They should be real food as much as possible." If you can't pronounce the ingredients, chuck it.
10. You brain is to blame?
Don't get frustrated if all of Glassman's great advice doesn't help you shake your cravings. According to a study from the Universities of Exeter, Cardiff, Bristol, and Bangor, the brain's reward-center response to photos of food predicted how much participants ate more strongly than their conscious hunger or desire for the food - similar tests are being used to study drug and gambling addictions. Paying attention to your body's needs versus your brain's wants can be an important first step. Grab a snack if you're truly hungry, but then continuously reassess. "When you're slightly satisfied, you need to stop," Glassman said. "If satiety has been difficult for you to pinpoint, then you need to slow down. Even do a meditation before you eat to help you slow down and listen to how your body feels." A few seconds of reflection can help you break old habits and form healthy new ones that'll help you in reaching for your goals, instead of reaching in the snack drawer.