Is Mindless Snacking Stalling Your Progress?

Last week, while on a morning run, my running partner and I were talking about falling into bad eating habits. Like many people, we both struggle with snacking. I’m not talking about the healthy planned snack of half an apple and a handful of almonds. I’m talking about the mindless and impulsive eating.   The late night rummage through the cupboards in search for something satisfying, or a few handfuls of cereal here and there, or a few bites of a leftover peanut butter and jam sandwich. In my friend’s case, it was a handful of chocolate covered blueberries while making supper, followed by a few more handfuls while doing the dishes. Throughout the evening there would be a few more ventures into the kitchen for more. Hungry? No. Bored? Definitely.
The problem is not the type of food that was eaten; chocolate covered blueberries, peanut butter, or any food for that matter, can be part of a healthy diet. The problem is the way they are consumed. Here’s why.
1. We mentally think they ‘don’t count’ because it’s just a few here and there (a few blueberries, just a lick of the spoon, and so on). So even though the mindless eating can add up to a meals’ worth of calories during the day, you won’t register that you consumed the food.
2. Mindless snacking does not satisfy the emotional need to enjoy food. Food is more than fuel and nourishment; we are meant to enjoy food. Most people get a lot of pleasure out of good food. But popping a few candies while you stand at the cupboard or while your mind is preoccupied on something else is not satisfying. You’ll just want more.
The tough part about mindless, impulsive snacking is that many people feel that they are unaware that they are doing it. If you struggle with mindless snacking, follow these five steps to help curb the habit.
1. Keep a food journal. Most people have heard this advice before; and many people decide they do not need to for their own ‘unique’ reason (I don’t have time, I’m not writing it down but I know what I’m eating and so on). If you are already keeping one, great, keep going. If you’ve kept one in the past you already understand the benefits.   If you want to improve your eating habits, start tracking. Save yourself time by committing to track your food right away instead of thinking you can do it in your head, realize that it doesn’t work, and then starting a journal weeks later.
Track what you eat, how much you eat, and how you are feeling. A food journal is simply to provide a written account of what you eat. It does not judge you or measure your self worth.   Do not ‘not write things down’ because you don’t want to record the handful of chocolate blueberries you ate. Write it down, and write how you felt (bored, stressed, anxious, happy, etc.). One quick note about food journaling- if you’re the type of person who becomes obsessed with tracking- measuring every single gram of food that you eat, you have a history of eating disorders, or you stop listening to your body because a certain online food app said you had enough to eat already, a food journaling may be more harmful than helpful. Be honest with yourself- you know yourself best!
2. Look at your food journal to ensure that you are providing your body with enough nutrition. The purpose or the food journal is to build awareness into your eating habits, and to ensure that you are eating enough during the day to fuel your body. Sometimes, if you find yourself standing in front of the fridge after dinner, you may actually be hungry. Look back at your food journal to see if you have eaten enough during the day to nourish your body. Did you eat enough protein, fat and fibre? Did you eat enough calories? Did you wait ‘til 2pm to eat your first meal and now are trying to compensate?
What you ate earlier in the day will effect how you feel later on in the day. A food journal can help determine if you are actually eating enough for your activity needs.
3. Alter your environment to give yourself the opportunity to stop and think. When it comes to mindless and impulse eating, time is your friend. Time to think critically can quash your many episodes of impulse eating. To give yourself time, you will need to make your indulgences and somewhere that makes them somewhat inconvenient to access. At work, simply putting the treats a few steps further away may be enough to deter mindless eating. It is a lot easier to snack on cookies or salted peanuts when they are on your desk than if they are in another room. At home, put treats in a top cupboard so that you need to get a step stool to access them. Sealed containers, or bags with tight knots, can also work. In my experience, the freezer doesn’t work too well. Frozen treats are still tasty, and the freezer is so close to the fridge!
Having treats further away does not mean you cannot have them, it just means that you will have the opportunity to think about what you are doing before you have them.
4. Stop and Think. Now that your treats are somewhat inconveniently stored, you have time to stop and think. Ask two simple questions before indulging.
1. Do I really want it?
2. How will this food make me feel? Not just right now, but 2 hours from now? 24 hours from now?
You may even want to write these questions on a note on your treats as a reminder. If you answer no to either questions, stop and decide to pass on the treat. If you truthfully answer yes to both questions, go to step 5.
5. Indulge and enjoy with gusto. If you decide that you really do want it, and it is worth the calories, then go ahead and enjoy. But enjoy with gusto. Don’t waste the flavours and textures of your favourite treats by scarfing them down while watching TV or standing at the counter, or sneaking a few bites of dessert after everyone else has had some and you’re putting it away in the kitchen. Portion out a serving, eat it slowly and enjoy every single bite.   Eat enough so that you feel satisfied, and then stop.   Do not feel guilty. Do not feel like you’ve wrecked your diet.   Food is meant to be enjoyed- so enjoy it.
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