How to stop snacking mindlessly: Operation get the spoon out of the peanut butter jar today.

popcorn and gummy bears

I’d like to introduce you to Jerry. Jerry likes peanut butter and he wants to know how to stop snacking on it mindlessly. He often finds himself walking aimlessly towards the pantry every hour or so. A few minutes later he’s got a spoon in a jar of PB and has no idea why.

Old man and peanut butter jar

But it’s not just peanut butter Jerry struggles with, it’s all snacking. He’s not sure if he’s actually hungry and needs something to eat or if it’s something else. All he knows is that it’s adding inches to his waistline and he’s not super stoked about it. 

Today’s article is all about how to stop snacking and whether or not you even need to. Whoa, plot twist.

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Do you even need to stop snacking?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with snacking. Snacks can be a part of your diet and adjusted based on your goals. Before assuming you need to quit snacking, see if it’s counterproductive to your goals. If you find yourself needing snacks during the day because of physical hunger, make adjustments to your calorie intake to fit them in. Essentially, plan to snack.

If your goal is weight loss and snacking is contributing to you creating a calorie surplus, then it may be best to remove some of them or to adjust the amounts.

For example, let’s say you need 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight. Through all of your meal meals, you’re averaging that each week. But the damn break room at work and treats sitting on the counter at home keep putting you over (looks at the sky and shakes fist).

meals and snacks

This is when finding ways to reduce snacking might benefit you. Or you could decrease the calories in each meal to accommodate the snacks during the day.

The myth of “stoking” your metabolism

I’m sure you’ve heard that eating smaller more frequent meals throughout the day “stokes” your metabolism. 

It is true that when you eat there is an increase in metabolic rate but this is due to the thermic effect of food. Thermic Effect of Food is the number of calories you burn digesting, chewing, and absorbing food. This usually contributes to around 5 to 10% of energy expenditure in a day. 

The mistake is made in thinking that this is enough to burn fat. What people believe is that the more they eat the more calories they will burn through the process of eating. But the thermic effect of food does not change based on the number of meals you eat. It stays roughly the same. 

The only difference is that it can increase or decrease based on the size of a meal. But over the course of a day, it averages out to be the roughly same. 

As you can see, if you eat six smaller meals the spikes are more frequent but smaller when compared to the larger and less frequent meals. 

If you prefer to eat smaller more frequent meals and snacks, got for it. If you enjoy eating 2 to 3 larger meals then that’s cool too. The way you eat should make sense for your preferences and lifestyle.

Challenges with snacking: Psychological versus physiological

Precision nutrition does a good job explaining that snacking and cravings are usually psychological rather than physiological and intense feelings like this (related to food) don’t often last longer than 15 to 20 minutes. What this tells us is that when we snack we’re not usually physically hungry. It’s more likely related to something mental, emotional, or environmental. 

Trying sitting with those feelings for a bit. Before grabbing a snack take a few deep breaths to give yourself time to think about, and choose a response versus reacting.

Something I picked up from fitness coach Luka Hocevar is the H.A.L.T strategy. The only difference is that I call it the HALT-B strategy.

Before grabbing a snack run through a simple checklist by asking yourself am I…

  • hungry
  • angry
  • lonely
  • tired
  • bored (or do I need a break)

We’ll dive more into this and how to apply self-care before snacking in the coming section. But the point here is that snacking isn’ necessary most of the time. Slow down and think before reacting to what you initially think is hunger. 

When snacks turn into meals. You’re eating more than you think

One of the biggest issues I see with coaching clients is not enough calorie awareness. Most of them make pretty good food choices throughout the day, they just don’t know how much they’re eating.

For example, most of us would consider nuts a healthy snack. But a few handfuls here and there and the calories can really start to add up. On the left is a one-ounce serving of macadamia nuts. Around 200 calories. On the right is a random handful I grabbed during the day. It’s a 400 calorie serving. 

Let’s do this with my personal kryptonite, almond butter. On the left is one tablespoon of almond butter, dog for scale. About 100 calories. On the right is a random scoop I grabbed during the day. About 200 calories.

two spoons of peanut butter

And let’s be honest. I’m taking scoops out of that jar multiple times per day. Lord only knows how much I’m eating. 

To combat this start reading nutrition labels or looking up nutrition info online. Learn about the foods you’re eating and how many calories are in various serving sizes. Weight and measure food portions from time to time to create more awareness around these serving sizes. 

Another idea is to pre-portion snacks. If you have any trigger foods pre-portion them out. Put them in zip lock baggies for you to grab as away from mindlessly overeating them.

If that feels like too much try committing to eating all snacks off a plate. There’s a psychological advantage to seeing an empty plate. It can contribute to satiation after eating. You also may be more likely to estimate proper serving sizes because you can physically see it.

But I’m actually hungry all the time and feel like I need snacks (Build hunger and appetite awareness)

Something to keep in mind with hunger is that it’s not an emergency. It’s just uncomfortable. Nothing is going to happen if we get a little hungry. But if you’re always feeling hungry there could be some interesting things going on.

Are you actually physically hungry?

It’s easy to get physical hunger confused with something else. Physical hunger can feel like an empty stomach, stomach growling, light-headedness, headaches, moodiness, lack of energy, or weakness.

People rely on external versus internal cues when assessing whether they’re hungry or not. Signs that it might NOT be physical hunger but something else.

  • Have you been working really hard for hours and really just need a break
  • Did you walk past some food and did the sight or smell trigger the desire to grab something to eat?
  • Size of dishes, packages, and various containers
  • Sweet, savory, fatty, salty, etc..
  • Crunchy, creamy, tough, or chewy
  • Colors look appetizing, packaging
  • A particular memory with a meal/food or the way a certain food makes you feel. Stress, anxiety, desire, discomfort, pain, happiness, excitement, etc…
  • Eating with family and friends, cultural traditions, peer pressure.
  • Eating too fast because you are rushed, drinks on the weekends with friends, a certain breakfast every morning, eating in front of the TV, dessert after dinner.
  • Mental: I need this food, I want this food, I’m supposed to eat this food. Not eating mindfully and enjoying and actually taking time to savor and enjoy a meal.

As you can see. There are many things that can make physical hunger by simply wanting to eat confusing.

When you want something to eat. Try using the hunger scale. 

Hunger scale

As you eat, continue to check in with this scale. Every few minutes or as 25%, 50%, and 75% of the meal are consumed. Do this one more time a few minutes after you’ve finished as well.

Feeling hunger when dieting or trying to lose weight is very natural and should be expected.

Feeling hungry can also mean fat loss is happening. Your body may be recognizing this and is trying to get you back to homeostasis – eating the same amount of calories you did before. Just being aware of this natural process can go a long way.

A few tips to help manage physical hunger and snacking

Try scheduled eating times

Try eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at roughly the same time each day. This makes sitting with hunger easier because you know when your next meal is coming. It also trains your body to expect food at those times.

Make sure you’re sleeping

Being sleep deprived or getting poor sleep can influence appetite. If you’re feeling hungry all the time or having a hard time figuring out when you’ve had enough to eat. Check-in with your sleep routine.

Check-in with food quality

Whole foods help you feel more satiated for longer periods of time. Do a quick check of how your diet has been lately. Are there some opportunities to swap out more processed foods with less processed ones?

Have a snack if you really need it but make it fruit, protein, or veggies.

If you’re really hungry and need something to get you to your next meal, create a shortlist of low-calorie snack options (less than 150 calories) that you could go to. Try your best to keep snacks to a piece of fruit, protein, or veggies. These foods take time to eat, are very satiating, and often offer crunch which is very satisfying.

  • Apple
  • Handful of berries
  • Turkey slices
  • Baby carrots
  • Or create your own snacks that fit into your day’s calorie needs

Decrease food variety and practice more uniform eating

Some studies are showing that has food variety can lead to eating more. 

Set up your environment to help you stop snacking and eat more mindfully

kitchen counter

Planning and knowledge don’t always work. How many times have we had the most detailed diet planned for ourselves only to see it fall apart in a matter of weeks?

Make doing the good things easier and the not so good things not so easy.

I have a rule, if there’s food in my house, desk, or at work, it will eventually be eaten. Remove temptation by performing a kitchen makeover and setting up your environment to help you succeed.

Why is this important?

Enter the Syracuse Study, which compared the average weight of women who had various foods on their counter versus women who did not have the same foods on their counter.

Foods on the counter and the average increase in weight versus those that did not have the same foods on their counter:

  • Breakfast cereal: +21 lbs.
  • Crackers or chips: +8 lbs.
  • Cookies: +9 lbs
  • Soda/cola/pop: +29 lbs.
  • Diet soda/cola/pop: +21 lbs.
  • Any fruit and water: -7 lbs.

We’re not just going to set your counter top-up for success, we’re going to take care of the entire kitchen, the fridge, freezer, the utensils and plates you use, and the cupboards.

Personal coaching

Self-care before snacking

As I mentioned earlier snacking is rarely related to physical hunger. I’ve found that self-care before snacking to be the most effective strategy for clients that need to reduce snacking for weight loss goals.

Set up a reminder. Something that reminds you to practice self-care before snacking. Sticky notes, an alert on your phone, whatever works for you.

Choose a very specific action that you can practice when you feel like you want to grab a snack. There will be times when you blackout and catch yourself in from of the pantry with a spoon in a jar of peanut butter. If you catch yourself during or after mindless snacking, still practice the action.

  • drink a glass of water
  • do tow push-ups
  • step outside for some fresh air
  • take 5 deep breathes
  • journal
  • stretch
  • meditate
  • Whatever slows you down, gives you a break, and make you feel good

Reward yourself for practicing the action with something other than food. This could be something as simple as a checkmark on a calendar.

How to stop snacking. Take action and one final tip

We covered a lot today but the too long didn’t read version is to set up your environment to help you snack less or snack smarter. Slow down and assess if you’re physically hungry or if it’s something else. Create more calorie awareness around what and how much you’re eating. And finally, practice some sort of self-care routine before snacking.

If all else fails brush and floss your teeth after you eat. No one wants to do that shit twice. 

Justin

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Photo by Olia Nayda on Unsplash

Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

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