By design, snacking is supposed to be a good thing. But for many people, it feels like following a carrot on a stick onto a path of overeating.
You know what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to spread a tablespoon of peanut butter on some apple slices. The reality: you wind up spooning it—and almost half of the jar—directly into your mouth. Then you wash it down with a bag of trail mix.
You’re supposed to eat a serving of hummus with some veggies. But now the whole tub of Sabra is empty, and after the veggies disappeared so quickly, you broke out a bag of tortilla chips to help finish it off. [After all, it’s a snack, right?]
Did you know: people struggle with overeating more in response to boredom than any other emotion.
The healthy snack slide results in two emotions:
- You’re not quite sure why you’re gaining weight (or struggling to lose) because you’re not technically eating anything bad.
- You’re swimming in guilt with bouts of overeating that you can’t control. You think, “Why can’t I just snack like a normal human being? Why am I so weak?”
The problem is not uncommon. In fact, you’re no different than most people that can’t quite figure out how to make healthy snacks work for their meal plan or reign in overeating. While snacking can be a good solution to fixing broken diet plans, willpower is an exhaustible quality for everyone. And there are certain situations where you’re set up for a fall and you don’t even recognize it. These situations are called triggers, and they can lay waste to your best-laid plans.
Everybody has triggers. You see them commonly with people that battling binge eating disorder (BED), but overeating is not just a problem for people with a clinical diagnosis.
[Note: Binge eating disorder, a diagnosable condition characterized by eating abnormally large amounts of food even when you’re not hungry, feeling embarrassment or shame as you do, and having this recur at least once a week for three straight months, is a serious problem. If these symptoms describes you, we encourage you to speak with a qualified medical professional with a background in disordered eating.]
Food triggers can be physical (like when you’re tired), mental (like when you’re stressed), or have to do with the foods you eat (some contain a sugar-salt-fat combo called “the bliss point” that’s actually engineered to make you want more). The trick to breaking free of overeating is learning your triggers and understanding why they set you off.
If you’re not sure if your lifestyle is causing your overeating, then read part 1 to understand what might be causing your struggles. If you already know your problem but are not sure how to fix it, then fast forward to part 2 and read all about the different solutions. They will put you in control, so you can finally master using healthy snacks as a way to lose weight effectively without feeling deprived and hungry.
Part I: Snack Triggers—And Why They Set You Off
The Trigger: Feeling sad, down, or depressed
Why it sets you off: People crave sweets when they are feeling down, says Brian Murray, former Born Fitness Head Coach. At least that’s what he has seen repeatedly in his work with hundreds of coaching clients.
“I’d say that a majority of people experience cravings as a coping mechanism for emotional reasons,” Murray explains. Research supports this idea. For example, a set of studies found that people ate larger amounts of hedonic foods—popcorn and M&Ms—when they were in a sad state, and ate more of a less gratifying option (raisins) when they were feeling happy.
Feeling depressed, meanwhile, can lead to what psychologists call “negative urgency.” The term describes when people get more impulsive as they feel worse. A study of more than 600 women showed that those who did impulsive things when they were depressed also had dealt with binge eating episodes at one point or another.
The Trigger: Stress and anxiety
Why it sets you off: Your body responds to stress by kicking off a “fight or flight” reaction that causes the hypothalamus to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone. That’s a fancy way of saying it shuts down your appetite. That sounds like a good thing, but that’s only in the short term.
When that stress becomes chronic (as it does when you’re worried about things like money, your job, or your marriage), then your body’s response changes. Your adrenal glands release another hormone, called cortisol, which increases your appetite. Your body will also secrete insulin, which promotes food intake and fat storage. That’s where things go from bad to worse and overeating kicks in. Studies show that stress not only causes you to consume more food, it also leads the desire to select higher-fat (read: higher calorie) foods. Over time, persistent stress can reinforce this habit and make food cues more rewarding to your brain. Thus, the vicious cycle of not wanting to eat certain foods but feeling like you don’t even control what your mind tells you to crave.
The Trigger: Lack of sleep
Why it sets you off: Ever wonder why you seem to crave cheeseburgers more after an all-nighter? Contrary to popular belief, overeating from a lack of sleep is not the result of having more available hours to eat. It’s because the desire for unhealthy snacks becomes hard-wired into your circuitry.
Your body tends to produce more ghrelin—the “hunger hormone”—when it lacks sufficient rest. And studies have proven that you’re driven to want higher-calorie comfort foods when you are tired. Even a single night of poor sleep can induce these effects, but over time the cumulative effect is even worse. Numerous studies have indicated that people who get fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night are more likely to be obese.
The Trigger: Boredom
Why it sets you off: This scenario will probably feel familiar: You’re at home, there’s nothing going on, so what do you do? You pop into the pantry and search for some “entertainment.” (Then eat it.) Why does this happen? Because people will do anything to escape monotony. Want proof? Check out this study where study participants inflicted painful electric shocks on themselves to break up a long period of boredom. What does that have to do with your appetite and overeating? The same study found that bored people who had access to M&Ms consumed much more of the candy than those in the control group. Another study found that people struggle with overeating more in response to boredom than any other emotion.
The Trigger: You’re distracted
Why it sets you off: There’s a reason why a bag of chips disappears so much faster when you’re in front of the TV: memory influences consumption. This meta-analysis of 24 studies found that when people aren’t looking at the food they eat—you know, in the same way that those Pringles don’t spend a whole lot of time in front of your eyes while Game of Thrones is on—they eat much (much) more food.
The visual cues we receive when we pay attention to what we eat can help us keep our consumption in check. And while distracted eating, in general, causes an increase in immediate food intake according to the review, the effect grew even larger as the day wore on. People who were distracted during their first meal ate more at their next one. Conversely, a different study found that women who were instructed to pay more attention to their food at a meal snacked less later in the day.
The Trigger: Dehydration
Why it sets you off: If you’re the type of person who finds salty foods irresistible, you may want to try a glass of water first. Researchers have found that your thirst and appetite for sodium share a lot of the same neural mechanisms. Again, you might not care about “neural mechanisms,” but it means that your craving for something (anything) salty might be a sign that you haven’t been drinking enough. and if you’re even slightly dehydrated, your brain will send stronger reward signals in response to salty food when you’re dehydrated. So when you feed your dehydrated body salty snacks, you crave more and more. That’s why it’s best to cut off the process before it’s out of control.
If you want to know if you’re dehydrated, head to the bathroom. Athletes are probably familiar with the “pee test,” in which you simply check out the color of your urine. The more clear it is, the better hydrated you are—although if you are taking vitamins, that can give you colorful pee no matter how well hydrated you are. In which case, you could try option #2 (no pun intended). Our friends at Precision Nutrition created a guide that shows how you can learn about your hydration level (and more) from your stool. Not something to brag about to your friends, but if you’re already in position, doesn’t hurt to take a look.
The Trigger: Hyper-palatable foods
Why it sets you off: Reward cues—what your brain tells you about the foods you eat—are major influencers over what and how much you consume. Researchers have observed that when people are given unlimited access to highly rewarding foods like cheeseburgers, Doritos and M&Ms, they will overeat by about a thousand calories per day. Keep that in mind now as you consider food manufacturers will test hundreds of combinations of their foods in order to find what’s referred to as “the bliss point,” or the perfect reward cue.
What they’re adding isn’t riboflavin (or any other vitamin)—it’s sugar, salt, and fat. This is how you end up with Prego spaghetti sauces that have more sugar per serving than two Oreo cookies. “The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring, but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating,” writes Michael Moss, an investigative reporter and New York Times-bestselling author of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The bottom line: Certain processed foods are designed to make you want to eat them—and keep eating them.
The Trigger: Non-satiating foods (foods that never quite make you feel full)
Why it sets you off: Science has shown that protein, fiber, and water are positively associated with satiety. In other words, they make you feel full, which helps you eat less. Foods low in those nutrients but high in fat do not provide a feeling of fullness that’s on-par with the number of calories they deliver. That makes them a whole lot easier to overeat. Here’s a list of just some examples of foods researchers have tested for their ability to deliver satiety, using the feeling of fullness provided by plain white bread as it’s baseline. As you’ll see, boiled potatoes are very filling relative to their calorie quotient, while a croissant most definitely is not.
Practical Solutions to Overeating Triggers
“Ok,” you are probably saying to yourself right now. There are a lot of different triggers out there. What can I actually do about them?”
Some answers are pretty straightforward—so much so that you probably already know them. Here’s a quick rundown of practical solutions to your overeating triggers:
Sleep: If a lack of sleep is your overeating trigger, make six to eight hours of shuteye (per night) a non-negotiable part of your routine. Go as far as scheduling a bedtime and wake time every day, so that you don’t fall into old patterns.
Dehydration: If you think dehydration might be an issue, drink more water. That’s obvious, but the best way might be to buy 3 water bottles. Put one at your desk at work, one by your bedside table (or near the TV), and a third in your car. Not enough drinking is usually a result of not thinking about drinking. So by creating a visual reminder (the water bottle), you’re putting yourself in a position to drink more.
Distraction: To address distracted eating, avoid having your meals in front of a TV or a computer. Follow Harvard’s recommendation to look at the food you’re consuming. Also: Chew more. (Increased chewing has been shown to reduce calorie intake.)
Too much goodness: If a pantry full of hyper-palatable foods is like having a loaded gun in the house, then a kitchen makeover is going to be super helpful. Clean that junk out of your cupboards and you’ll be better positioned to succeed. Or, simply put the foods that you desire most (but don’t want to completely remove) in an area that you don’t visit as often (like a different cabinet in your home). The less you see it, the less likely you are to grab it in a pinch.
But here’s the thing: life isn’t always so simple. Let’s say you live in a situation where you share the pantry, and therefore don’t have 100 percent say over all of its contents. Or, perhaps you’re working two jobs right now, and the idea of getting eight hours of sleep seems downright impossible.
And that’s before we even get into stress, anxiety, and depression. It’d be pretty ridiculous for someone to try and tell you: Well, just don’t be sad.
The fact is, cut-and-dry solutions are rare. So while the usual things you read about in health articles—getting proper sleep, sufficient exercise, and maybe even trying meditation to help you stress less—are of course helpful, we’re not going to give you some big list of things you need to do to kick overeating to the side. Instead, we’re going to arm you with a process that will help you recognize when (and why) a binge is coming on, identify other options you can take, and then move on with your life.
The Awareness Answer to Overeating
Binges often follow some type of pattern—one that you don’t even recognize has been set in motion. “Finding a way to break the pattern is key,” says Jessica Robertson, RD at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. “Then you can brainstorm alternatives and come up with a concrete plan for confronting the trigger, vs. ‘stuffing’ it with food.”
Step 1: The 3-Day Test
First, identify the real cause of the issue. There are two tactics you can use to do this. The first is to keep a journal. It’s not something you have to do for the rest of your life; three days can work.
“That’s where I have clients start,” Robertson says. “Record not only your foods and fluids but also your sleep and your feelings and emotions.” That can help you identify whether a bingeing episode is purely physical, like if too much time elapsed between last meals, or if something deeper and more emotional is at work.
It’s possible that your binge is simply a matter of bad timing. Some people will overeat if they go too long between meals. If that’s you, eating smaller meals more frequently (5-6 times a day in most cases) could be your answer.
Conversely, you may find that snacking itself is your trigger. If that’s the case, you may do better eating only 2-3 more substantial meals a day or even trying an intermittent fasting plan.
Another way to recognize problems as they arise is to use a tactic Precision Nutrition calls “noticing and naming.” In it, you simply call attention to what you are doing in the moment you are doing it, then name what is happening.
For example, Murray says that one of his habits is to make a beeline for the peanut butter jar when he’s mad or annoyed. When that happens, what he’ll try to do is stop himself and say—out loud—what’s going on: I’m pissed off and eating out of frustration. He’s even given himself a name for these times: “Miffed Murr.”
By calling out what’s going on as it happens, you achieve two things. First, you create awareness, which puts you back in control. Then, you can decide whether you really want to move ahead with that course of action, or recognize if you are simply acting out of habit and don’t actually want to do what you’re about to do.
The extra time lets you take a deeper look at what’s going on—and consider whether eating is going to help you solve the problem at hand.
“For example, if anxiety is a trigger, it’s good to explore that further,” says Las Vegas-based dietitian Andy Bellatti. “It’s important to understand that binge-eating in response to anxiety is problematic in two ways. One, it does nothing to change the condition that is causing the anxiety in the first place. Two, it often leads to add unhelpful feelings and thoughts, like ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘I feel guilty.’“
By recognizing what’s going on—and seeing that the course you’re on isn’t a real solution—you shrink the problem down to size and make it more manageable in the moment.
“Instead of expanding the anxiety and making it larger, focus on something else that makes you feel good,” Bellatti suggests. “Binge-eating may provide temporary pleasure, but it does not make someone feel good when, five minutes after doing it, it brings up a variety of negative emotions.”
The thing is, it’s a whole lot easier to trade in your would-be binge session for a brisk walk when you’re not staring at a pantry full of chocolate covered pretzels.
Step 2: Eliminate and Replace
The two are paired together because we know that completely eliminating temptation isn’t possible. And in fact, it’s not even something we suggest over the long haul in most cases. A good diet should include your favorite foods—and that includes dessert. But sometimes it’s necessary to take a timeout from an item and set up your environment for success.
“We eliminate things temporarily until we can figure out a solution,” Murray says. “We’ll work with someone to understand whether a food is being eaten just because it’s there, or if maybe it’s being relied on because it provides something larger emotionally.”
Murray says that most of the time these temporary eliminations take place as part of a kitchen makeover, but it’s only half of the step. The other half is replacing the item with foods that are either “healthier” or easier to control. Here’s where a coach or journal is helpful because they can assist you in identifying foods and creating solutions.
Step 3: Change Your Mindset
The last step might be the hardest: Self-forgiveness.
We’re all our own worst critics. If you’re the type of person who gets upset by a binge, you probably also have high standards—especially when it comes to yourself.
“People who have these habits tend to be the most self-critical people,” Murray says. “They end up going through these cycles of ‘I’m not good enough, I might as well do this.’ Then they eat it, feel bad, and repeat that process over and over.”
All of that self-blame can feel like a warped form of discipline. (“I feel terrible about this, it must mean I want to be better.”) But in reality, beating up on yourself isn’t helpful; it’s counterproductive—especially when you consider the “negative urgency” idea discussed earlier. You’ll feel better—and be more able to stay on track with your eating—if you can show yourself a little compassion. This doesn’t always come naturally for people.
“With a number of clients, I have to tell them, ‘I can tell you’re a good person. But you don’t treat yourself as well as you treat everyone else,’” Murray says. A lot of times we’re harder on ourselves than we’d ever be on another person.
Would you go screaming at someone that they suck or they’re weak if you saw them eat more than they’d meant to? You wouldn’t. Try to afford yourself the same courtesy. With a mind free of self-blame, you can be more aware of what’s going on internally, and be better at deciding the healthiest course of action for you.