5 Easy Ways to Break Your Mindless Snacking Habits

Yesterday I ate an entire bag of potato chips without even noticing.

I opened the bag for a nibble just as I was getting in the car to drive home for dinner. A friend called on the phone and we got talking about how frustrating it is to get children to sleep on time and it got heated with some good, cathartic venting going on and one thing led to another.  

I have no memory of that many chips going into my mouth. 

When I got home, there were only a few chips left, tucked away in the bottom corner (where apparently I couldn’t reach them while I was driving).

Gasp! But how could this happen?! I certainly didn’t want to eat that many. I never would have purposefully let myself do that. 

It was like my mind had left my body. Who was this person who had not stopped eating despite all her good intentions? And how could I stop this from ever happening again when I didn’t even notice it was happening until afterward?

I was a victim of mindless snacking.  

It's so easy to snack too much, and especially mindlessly. This means in the car, while you work, when you’re checking email and social media and while you watch Netflix or YouTube. Anytime you’re not paying attention to your food, you can’t control how much of it you’re actually eating - and you can’t exert much willpower over when to stop.

These patterns quickly turn into snacking habits that get wired into your brain. When you’re watching the same TV show next week or driving the same route home again, your mouth starts to water and your hand reaches for the snack. Your brain prepares for the reward of the habit - a tasty snack.

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Why are Habits So Hard to Break?

Mindless snacking habits seem really difficult to break out of. But that’s because most people try the same two (mostly terrible) techniques:


Forbidden Foods: Putting it completely off limits

You tell yourself that you can’t have it at all anymore and rely on willpower to stop yourself from ever eating it again. But somehow you seem to want it even more, sometimes even obsessively. That’s the backlash that science shows happens to everyone. Putting something completely off limits increases your cravings for it.


Good Intentions: Intending to eat only one or just a few

You tell yourself you’ll open the package and eat only a small handful. But now you’ve fired up your tastebuds and when you turn your attention away, like back to videos or driving, your hand keeps bringing the snack up to your mouth. Your brain’s autopilot is helpfully trying to get more of that tasty reward even though your attention has moved on. Not so helpful in this case!

Neither of these strategies work on mindless snacking habits because when you're distracted or multi-tasking, your willpower goes offline and your brain can't provide rational oversight anymore. Your eating decisions revert to basic urges.

Once you snack mindlessly a few times and it repeats over and over, it gets wired into a habit. Habits are created when you get a reward - something that’s enjoyable, sweet, crunchy, refreshing or energizing. Avoiding pain or angst is also a common reward (Hello, emotional eating). 

Now your brain thinks that next time it’s in the same situation, it should do the same thing again because a nice reward will follow. Makes sense, right? Your brain is trying to help save you from thinking too much by wiring up rewarding patterns to be automatic.

But once it’s wired, how do you break a habit you don’t want?

How Snacking Habits Work

Habits are maintained by your environment, triggers and rewards. If it’s super easy, right in front of you and comes with a sweet, tasty reward, then it turns into a habit very easily. Snacks are carefully designed and tested by food companies to meet these criteria, from the taste, to mouth feel to packaging design to advertising that suggests when and how you should eat it.

But habits don’t work in isolation - they’re carefully saved automatic responses that only work in context and they have a couple of requirements. 

Habits need a trigger - something that starts them off

This might be seeing potato chips in the break room or smelling popcorn at the movies. It might be a social influence, like everyone passing around the pretzels at a bar. It might be a time of day, like a late afternoon lull when your energy dips. It might be a feeling, like a conflict or stress that makes you want to comfort yourself. Our lives are full of these kinds of snacking triggers.

Habits also need a reward - something immediate that feels good

And sweet, tasty, or crunchy snacks make a great reward. Sometimes avoiding emotions is the reward, like when something starts feeling difficult, stressful or conflicted, you start feeling the need for a snack because it will take away that uncomfortable feeling.

Snacking habits need a reward or they won't continue. We're programmed to like something that’s enjoyable, sweet, crunchy, refreshing or energizing. And most of all we like the escape. #Habits #HealthyEating

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Habits also need to be something you can actually do when the trigger happens 

You might be in the habit of eating popsicles after lunch on hot days but if you aren't at home or there aren’t any popsicles left, then you can’t eat one. 

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There are many techniques for breaking habits and it’s usually a hard process that takes some real effort. But if you take away the trigger, the reward or the capability, you can easily interrupt the pattern and break the habit. And voila! The snacking behavior goes away.

Here are 5 easy ways to kick your mindless snacking habits to the curb.

1

Make Snacks Less Convenient - The more effort they require, the less you'll eat them

Ever notice how much effort snack companies go through to make their products easier and more convenient for you to buy and eat? Grocery stores put them right next to the checkout counter. Convenience stores were created to make them available wherever you happen to be. We don’t eat so many snacks just because we like them, it’s also because we have so many convenient opportunities.

If you systematically make snacks less convenient for yourself, you’ll find you snack a lot less often. If you keep chocolate in your desk drawer while you’re working for when you need a pick-me-up, it’s too easy to eat it. But if you move it just out of reach or into a different room, you’ll see you get around to eating it much less often.

This is why clearing your house and office of everything that you don’t want to go into your stomach works so well. If you don’t have any in your house and have to get up and drive all the way to the store each time you feel the munchies coming on, you probably won’t.

If you do decide to eat a snack, serve yourself the amount you want to eat. Then put the rest of the snack food away in a place that’s hard to reach -- like the top shelf of the garage -- which means you need to get out the ladder to get another helping. Now you can eat mindlessly as you work or watch TV and finish only what you served yourself when your rational brain was in charge. If you want seconds, you’ll have to get up and go get the ladder to get them.. And most of the time, you won’t.

2

Add a Delay - You can eat that, but only after 10 minutes

If you give your rational brain a chance to weigh in on the decision, then your willpower can kick in and help you overcome your temptation. One way to do this while facing down a cookie is to tell yourself that you can have it, but not right now. If you still want it in 10 minutes, then you can come back and eat it. If you’re in the car, try telling yourself that you can eat that, but only after you arrive at your destination. If you’re on the phone, you can eat that but only after you hang up.

This switches decision-making control over from your lizard brain (“Must have cookies!”) to a part of your brain that evaluates future options, which is a much more rational process. The decision in the current moment is diffused and it’s postponed until a time when you’re not so distracted.

10 minutes later or after you arrive at your destination or get off the phone, you can eat the snack if you decide to. But do so knowing that you’re consciously deciding to eat it and that’s a better way to make food choices, instead of mindlessly eating it, which takes it out of your conscious control and strengthens the snacking habit for the future. 

Even better, once you reach the end of the first delay, try adding a second delay.. And then another one.. You may be able to postpone the snack for so long that you forget about it or don’t even feel like eating it anymore.

3

Add a Pause - Rework snack packaging for the amount you choose to eat

Food companies carefully research and test their packaging sizes and closures and configurations. Do you think they do that for some benefit to you? Maybe to keep the cookies fresher for longer? Nope. They carefully test to determine how many  cookies customers will mindlessly eat -- and then they design the package to be just a little bigger than that so you’ll try to finish the whole bag or a little smaller than that so you’ll have to open another package. And once you open another package, you’ll want to finish it.. All human brains have an innate desire to finish what they started, even if it’s not very good anymore. You binge-watched the entire last season of Game of Thrones, right? Right.

Cookie packages are often designed to be difficult to close, which means after you eat one or two, the rest will go stale soon -- unless you finish the rest of the package now.

Packages of loose candy that fit in your purse so they can be eaten in the car often have ziplock closures on the top that are designed to be easy to open with one hand. In other words, you can easily eat them while you’re driving. They carefully test this out to make sure it works. Remember, any eating you’re doing while you’re driving is mostly mindless, which means your willpower is impaired and likely won’t stop you from eating more.

This means you’ll get through the big size bag faster than if you buy a bunch of small halloween size candy bags, even if the total amount of candy is exactly the same. Why? Because when you have to rip open a new bag, your mindless brain pauses and your rational brain comes back online for a second. “Hey,” it thinks, “Have I had enough? Do I really want to eat this next bag too?” And often that is enough to prompt you to decide to stop.

First, they get you to buy a bigger bag by making it seem like it’s a better deal. But then they design the packaging so that you eat it faster and need to buy another one sooner. 

Overall, you ate more candy and they made more money.

Snack packaging tricks: You ate more candy and they made more $. No fair! #Habits #HealthyEating

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If you want the savings of buying the larger size but you don’t want to eat it fast, you need to take the packaging into your own hands. Get out your own ziplock baggies and repackage that snack into the portion size you want to allow yourself to eat. Use your rational brain to decide how much or how many is best. Then you can mindlessly eat whatever is in your pre-filled bag. And remember to put the rest on the top shelf in your garage!

4

Make Snacks Less Enjoyable to Eat - Take away the reward to break the habit

If you drink too much soda and want to cut down, you probably have a stash of it in a fridge near where you are most of the time. That is your downfall. A cold drink, especially a caffeinated one, is cool and refreshing and energizing - it’s a nice reward! Remember that an instant, pleasurable reward wires into a habit very easily. And telling yourself you can’t have any at all makes you want it more. You need to take away the pleasure without depriving yourself completely.

Here’s how to do it. Take all the soda out of the fridge except one. Now you can drink as many sodas as you want, but you can only have one in the fridge at a time. If you finish the cold one, you’ll find that drinking a warm one isn’t nearly so tempting -- and you probably won’t.

If you want to eat fewer fries or can’t stop eating scones with jam, get rid of ketchup or the jam. Now you can eat as many as you want -- but they won’t taste as good, and you'll eat a lot less.

5

Replace Snacks with a Similar Alternative - Keep the same trigger and reward but swap out the snack

Habits are difficult to break entirely, as they have a sneaky way of coming back when you’re tired or stressed. This happens when your rational brain, which is responsible for inhibiting bad habits, goes offline leaving the lizard brain in charge again. When you’re triggered to eat a snack, it’s actually much easier to substitute what you snack than it is to resist snacking entirely, especially if the reward is almost the same.

If you can’t stop eating potato chips while you work and you want to quit that snacking habit, instead of trying to force yourself not to do it, think of an alternative with the same reward that you can do instead. Replace a crunchy, unhealthy snack with a crunchy, healthy one, like roasted nuts, salted cucumber slices or kale chips. Crunchy is a great reward and we all love a good crunchy food. Similar to a sweet treat, it’s a reward that’s biologically programmed into us.

If you stop at Starbucks each morning and want to quit that mindless latté habit, replace it with something else you can drink in the car. Is there a place you can pick up a green smoothie to drink on your commute instead? Or fill a similar cup with tea or flavored water to bring with you while you drive.

Conclusion

Mindless snacking habits seem hard to break, but not if you’re using the right strategies. Good intentions and making foods forbidden don’t work for mindless habits. Find ways to make the habit more difficult and less enjoyable to help yourself do less of it. Interrupt the habit by removing the trigger or taking away the reward. Take control of snack packaging to dole out the amount you choose to eat and create a pause that prompts your rational brain to weigh in. And instead of trying to resist completely or quit altogether, which is hard, keep the trigger and reward the same but replace the snack with one that's better for you.


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What mindless snacking habit do you really want to break? Leave a comment below and I’ll give you some guidance.