Many of us are champions when it comes to keeping ourselves on point with our nutrition goals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but nonetheless fall short of the podium when it comes to snacking later at night.
It’s one thing when we’re eating our favorite dessert, or if we’re enjoying a treat with our spouse or kids. Fun, connection, and enjoyment are what that should be about. Please don’t ever feel any guilt there!
Please enjoy that, I’m talking about something very different here. This article is about when you find yourself snarfing down food because you’re bored, tired, or you NEED something sweet because it’s just been a very crappy day.
It’s when food is clearly about something else.
It’s the snacking that happens in front of the TV where you barely even remember eating it. It’s when you start thinking about that big work deadline, or are stressed out about your kids never-ending hectic activities schedule, and find yourself just mindlessly snacking away. Eating in these cases isn’t really about enjoyment, it becomes a method of distraction, and not a very good one.
If these all too regular binges sound familiar to you, that requires a solution. And just like anything you want to change, you need the skill to tackle it.
Three of them, in fact.
Three Skills to Curb Mindless Snacking
1. Press Pause
First you’ve got to stop in your tracks, and hit the pause button.
Automatic decisions are great when it’s something beneficial and necessary such as “Should I brush my teeth when I wake up?” That’s one you should go ahead and do automatically. Please.
But if it’s something you want to change, you need to slooooooow waaaaay dooowwwwn. Give yourself time to make a new decision. Speed is not your friend here, a quick choice without thought unfortunately almost always leads you down the wrong path. Putting the brakes on that initial impulse gives you time to be mindful and make a real decision.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and use this break to see what’s rattling around in your head, use that 10 minutes to make an informed decision. This simple action of waiting before you eat that big bag of chips is an essential part of breaking an automatic habit.
If you find yourself with the bag already open and chips flying into your mouth before realizing “ugh I meant to try that timer thing!”
It’s ok! It really is.
Close the bag, put the chip clip back on so it’s nice and fresh for when you truly decide to eat it. Pick up your phone, open up the app and set it for 10 minutes. Now you’ve started this skill training!
It’s actually a great place to start practicing. You’ll remember to do the timer more often as keep working on it. It’s not all or nothing. It’s practicing a skill until you got it down, that’s your goal.
2. Check Yourself
Now that you’ve started on remembering to pause before that 10:30 pm bag(s) of chips, you’ve now naturally segued into the next crucial skill. And that’s recognizing and analyzing what may be triggering the snacking impulse.
It can seem like a lot at first, and this is pretty important work you’re doing for yourself for sure. But just like that bag of chips, you can take it one bite at a time.
First is the recognition part, it can help to just think of it as collecting data. You’re asking questions and jotting down the answers.
And after that you can get to sorting out what the answers actually mean to you.
Here’s four questions that will lead you to making that informed choice we’re striving for.
What do you feel in your stomach?
A fundamental question is, are you even hungry? Is it an empty, hollow, growling feeling? This is the sensation of being truly hungry.
And it seems silly, because you are reaching for something to eat, but does your stomach feel full? If it does, that can immediately tell you something for sure.
What were you thinking about right before you had that craving?
Now this becomes a bit more difficult. What thoughts were in your head before you got up off the couch, washed your hands, and grabbed the bag of chips?
It’s like the association game, just blurt out the first things that come to mind! And now think about the content of it. Something stressful and worrisome? Or does it bring a smile to your face? Or were you just zoned out watching TV or on your phone? This is all useful information.
How about your emotions, any feelings you can put some words around?
Just as with thoughts, this can be difficult territory, but even just broad and general terms will help. Happy is of course different from sad and calm and angry don’t go together at all.
Starting there you can be more specific and narrow it down further. Annoyed, proud, lonely, joyful, afraid, hopeful, guilty, grateful, embarrassed, amused, disgusted, or content.
Again, it could be any of this, or none at all. We’re just collecting data.
Is snacking just a habit I’ve created?
This perhaps can feel more judgmental, “oh then I’m just eating when I don’t need to, that’s not good.” But, really we don’t know what we don’t explore and try to figure out. Habits can be useful or not so, but they do exist and the definition is that they happen regularly. And eating, literally, adds up.
Do you notice if you have your favorite brand of snack every evening watching TV or winding down looking at your phone? Or a book, or playing a video game? If someone took a picture of you every time you were doing those activities, would a bag of chips be right there with you? Do you eat this every day just because you eat it every day?
And maybe not, maybe it isn’t an everyday thing, maybe as you check in you observe that’s not it at all. You’re just bored and thought a snack would be nice.
Now that you’ve got your notes, remove yourself from it a bit so you more clearly see what might be happening. Zoom out, take a big step back, get a bird’s eye view, insert whatever else analogy makes sense 😀 and get to analyzing what patterns start forming.
Look at the details you’ve jotted down and see if they jive with what happened earlier in the day.
Did your already busy routine get disrupted even more when you had to go to another store because they were out of what you needed at your usual market?
Was it pretty easy going until that check engine light started blazing in front of you on your way back home?
Or it could be that nothing especially significant happened, just the same old stuff. Sometimes, you check in, and there’s really nothing going on, but you still know eating a late night snack isn’t something you really want. It isn’t fitting in with your goal of changing how you eat.
Very often, you’ll find a clear connection between the urge to snack and a triggering event/feeling/situation and that revelation is enough to dampen the impulse. An “oh yeah! That tracks!” moment that makes you think, yeah I don’t need this bag of chips.
Sometimes though, nothing pops out from your question and answer session. You simply went to the pantry and grabbed the kettle style salt and vinegar potato chips.
But even then it’s still a very useful thing to pause and check in, the act of waiting and introspection gives you information you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Again, it’s not that snacking is always bad. It’s that we do so because it’s a real choice we’ve made.
3. Normalize Being Human
Here’s the part that sucks — human beings feel stressed, emotional, bored, tired, cranky, grumpy, sneezy, dopey and all the rest of the dwarves. It’s the definition of being human.
Also, it’s absolutely normal to want to eat delicious things. A delicious food is food you want to eat.
It’s a tautology.
The skill here, is to acknowledge the normal, natural, and reasonable human condition of occasionally being bored, stressed out, or pissed off. We are not robots. Can ChatGPT even get bored of answering our dumb questions?
It’s normal and natural, but it doesn’t mean that we have to fill that boredom/stress/sadness with bottomless nachos. I can suggest all kinds of things to do. Pick up that old guitar in the back of your closet, fire up Duolingo and brush up on your Espanol para veinte minutos. Or, just find a better TV show, Ted Lasso is excellent. You know yourself better than I ever will, you can always find something better to do than eat a snack.
But there’s also value to knowing that it’s ok to feel a little bored sometimes. Similarly, if stressful or emotional things are happening in our lives, it’s normal to feel stressful or emotional. We don’t need to fix the normal ups and downs of being human, it’s just part of the gig.
Yet, with this said, if we eat more than we need to every time we feel stressed out or emotional, that’s a lot of non-hunger eating!
SELF CARE! I hear someone yelling in the back.
Yes sure, but many people just have a lot on their plates. I talk to folks all of the time who are being asked to do the work of two people, and they’re stressed and tired. I don’t think there’s enough meditation in the world to fix that, they’re just going to feel stressed. That may be you.
If you’re tired, there’s a simpler (not easier) fix. Go to sleep. I know that’s easier said than done. I hear this from clients all the time, later at night may literally be the only time they have for themselves. So they stay up and inevitably they get the urge to have a snack while they zone out watching Love Island.
It’s normal to want to claw back some time for yourself, but being sleep deprived just makes everything harder.
This is what I mean by normalizing being human. There’s far too many biohack bros telling you that you can OPTIMIZE YOUR FULL POTENTIAL by wrangling all of your negative feelings and keeping them away from “your best self”.
It seems like a good idea at first glance, but it’s really not. We should be capable of feeling normal human things, even if they’re uncomfortable. It’s normal to feel sad when sad things happen. It’s normal to feel stressed when there’s too much to do. So the choice we make for ourselves is then; Am I willing to acknowledge, engage, and “feel my feels”? Or am I going to shovel some chips in my mouth?”
It’s the same thing if we eat just because it’s delicious and it’s a habit. It’s totally normal to want to eat delicious things. It’s also normal to create habits.
The part of the skill practice at hand here is developing the ability to deal with the discomfort of not getting something we want. To immerse yourself in how disconcerting it is to do something different from our habit.
This isn’t about “willpower”.
This is about perspective taking. It’s about taking a step back, noticing the mundane normalcy of what you are feeling. Thinking about all of the other people in the world who feel the same way. That having these emotions is not a problem or an emergency. That it’s bleh and not at all great, but it’s ok.
This can be a lot. It’s much easier to just polish off that salty crunchy goodness to the last bit of crumbs. Why should we even bother with practicing any of what I’ve outlined above?
The Ability to Choose is Autonomy
If you are blindly following rules or blindly following habits, you are giving up your autonomy, you are quite simply being controlled by something other than yourself.
Diets give you rules: You’re on a diet, you can’t eat these things.Emotional eating gives you a rule: If you feel emotions, you have to eat these things.
Neither of these is a choice. Both are you just going along for the ride.
Pause and check in, and give yourself the chance to see the difference between the banana split you eat with your best friend and the bag of cookies when you’re stressed out on a random Tuesday.
It becomes fully apparent in that ten minute break. It’s right there. They’re both “dessert,” but the experience is completely different. One is enjoyment and connection. The other is disconnected and distracted.
When you check in, you can make choices. “This is a time I totally want to have this snack!” or “This is a time that after dinner snacking doesn’t fit the kind of person I want to be.”
These are both equally valid decisions.
When you’ve learned and practiced these skills, you overcome your habits and you get to choose. That’s autonomy, that’s you deciding for yourself what’s best for you at that moment.
Give yourself the ability to choose:
Pause 10 minutes Check yourself Feel normal human feels
You’ll notice that these aren’t three separate skills — they’re a three skill system. They work together.
Some people get amazing results just putting in the pause. Others may need both the pause and check in together every time.
If it’s really tough going, implement the full system: Pause 10 minutes, check in with yourself about what’s going on, and engage in some perspective taking and willingness to feel. It’s a progressive system, where you put in as much as you need, to give yourself an informed and autonomous choice about eating.
Build Skills that Last
Unlike most nutrition behavior change programs that just throw random habits at you, Eating Skills works on an integrated, progressive system of skills. Giving you a healthy, non-dogmatic approach to food.