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. 

Willpower is Broken: Why it Will Always Eventually Fail You

Visit any college during finals week and you’ll see a lot of students at their worst – disheveled, sleep deprived and eating the worst junk food they’ve indulged in all year. While they’re forcing themselves to study hard for long hours every single day and using a lot of willpower, students who are normally rested, healthy eaters will indulge in all sorts of sugar and fat, stay up late, skip exercise and generally turn into impulsive, in-the-moment versions of their healthier selves.

Did you know people on diets commit adultery much more often than those who aren’t dieting? This isn’t because they’re more amorous or have shadier morals. It’s because willpower is actually a limited resource, like water in a reservoir. Being on a diet heavily depletes willpower. Making yourself study hard day in and day out depletes willpower, too. And when your willpower reservoir gets depleted, the rest of your behavior shifts towards impulsive, craving, “right now” desires and your long term plans are put on the shelf for another day.

Willpower has a very misleading reputation. Most people believe that if you just use your willpower, you can make yourself do whatever you decide to do.. and if you don’t pull it off, it’s only because you didn’t try hard enough. Most people believe this so strongly that they try to “make themselves” do really tough things, like change their entire diet (a complex and intensive undertaking!), by relying solely on willpower. But willpower simply doesn’t work that way. Thinking about willpower like that will ensure that you stumble again and again and trick you into thinking that it’s your own fault, because you just needed “more willpower”. That’s not true either.

Willpower evolved to override your impulses, which drive much of your automatic behavior. Your impulses are designed to tell you what the ‘right’ thing to do is in the moment, based on your immediate needs and desires. Your impulses mostly care about seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving energy.

Willpower is a tool that your prefrontal cortex (the front of your brain, behind your forehead) can use to override your impulsive behavior when it doesn’t match your long term goals. It’s the part of your brain that helps you decide whether to do something based on its immediate effects (“I want that ice cream now!”) or its long term effects (“It’s better for my health if I don’t eat so much sugar”).

But the way willpower works is tricky. You can’t just decide to turn it on and keep it on all the time – it doesn’t respond to conscious commands, only to committed long term goals. Willpower also gets tired the more you use it, and then it doesn’t work as well. If you push it too hard, it will fail completely. And worst of all, willpower simply won’t turn on when you’re stressed or anxious, really tired, when your blood sugar gets low or when you’re distracted. Those are times when your brain is programmed to save long term goals for later and focus on immediate desires. If you’re trying hard to stick to a diet, you’re frequently having to override your impulses and use willpower to make yourself take the harder path (like saying ‘No’ to cheesecake when it’s offered to you). But there are a lot of critical moments when your willpower is completely turned off!

It’s easy to see how so many dieting failures and relapses are not because you weren’t trying, they’re because you were relying on willpower when it was turned off or overused and depleted already. Willpower will always eventually fail you. But you can learn the tricks of using willpower to your advantage, know when it’s turned on or off and be careful not to max it out.

Willpower doesn’t work when you’re stressed, anxious, scared or angry. Stress that turns the fight or flight system on also turns willpower OFF. You can help turn your willpower back on by slowing your breathing down. This turns on your relaxation response and clears away fight or flight hormones. To boost your willpower, start by taking 3 long, deep breaths, go outside for a few minutes or do something that calms you.

Willpower doesn’t work when you’re really tired. If you’re sleep deprived or find yourself in the kitchen in the evenings when you’re tired, your food choices are not likely to be particularly good. You might decide to finish off that entire package of mac and cheese, when your willpower would save you if only it were daytime, when you’re feeling more rested. Try getting more regular sleep as a way to boost your willpower. It has the added bonus of reducing your carb cravings and your appetite.

Willpower doesn’t work when you have low blood sugar. When your blood sugar starts to get low, your body starts conserving energy. Your prefrontal cortex is one of the first things to get cut off — and it’s goodbye, willpower. Eating a little bit of protein every few hours is one way to help stabilize blood sugar and keep your willpower working for you. And here’s one more reason to never miss a meal – it turns off your willpower!

Willpower doesn’t work when you’re distracted. When you’re watching TV, driving, talking on the phone or multitasking, don’t expect your willpower to make the best choices for you. When you’re mindfully paying attention to your food, your prefrontal cortex notices that the bag of chips you want to open doesn’t fit with your long term plan and raises a flag to get your willpower to kick in. If you’re not paying attention, that flag never gets raised. You will almost always overeat when you eat in front of the TV. You can help yourself avoid temptation and limit how much you eat while distracted by portioning out what and how much you plan to eat and putting the rest away before your TV show starts.

Choose your willpower battles. Use your willpower in the grocery store to stop yourself from buying food you don’t want in your house, where you’ll almost certainly eat it sooner or later. Go to the grocery store rested and relaxed, well fed and energetic. Arrange your food choices in advance when you know your willpower will be low – like making sure you have healthy snacks on hand for when your blood sugar dips. And most importantly, let your willpower rest sometimes – rest is the magic that restores your willpower reservoir and fills it back up to help you reach your highest goals.

Parents: Top 5 Eating Habits to Teach Your Kids

With the simple act of repeating your actions over and over with your family, you’re instilling deep and lasting habits into your children. The family routines you create, how and when you sit down to meals, what kinds of snacks and treats you offer, the atmosphere around cooking and eating and many more aspects of your family life all contribute to eating habits that will become your children's default behavior for years to come. 

You’re teaching your children what kind of relationship to have with food. That will be the relationship that sustains them in good times, determines what they'll do when they have other things on their mind and dictates what they fall back on in times of stress. These eating habits will be repeated hundreds of thousands of times in their lifetime - all on autopilot - and can add up over years to huge numbers of extra calories and many extra pounds.

Having coached hundreds of adults trying valiantly to change their bad eating habits later in life and having done extensive research on eating behaviors, I can tell you what plagues people long after their childhood is over - and what created those issues in the first place. Plan the healthy eating habits you hope to instill in your children now and make sure your actions are supporting the habits you’re trying to create. Using these 5 keystone habits with your kids will help them develop a resilient, balanced mentality around eating and a healthy relationship with food.

You don’t have to implement these habits perfectly every single time. Go for ‘most of the time’ and check yourself by noticing if you do it enough that they come to expect and rely on it. If your kids know you’re going to take away their devices when it’s time to eat because that’s the way meals are in your home, then they’re getting it. If they remind each other (or you if you forget), then they’re getting it. If they’re getting it, then it’s ok to have a special night when you all watch a movie over dinner together or some other bending of the rules.

5 Eating Habits to Teach Your Kids that Create a Healthy Relationship with Food

1.

Don’t force kids to clear their plate

Let them decide when they’re done eating. In my two decades of working with morbidly obese patients struggling to lose weight, I’ve seen many of them compelled to ‘clear their plate’ or unable to leave food they weren’t hungry for and didn’t need because they couldn’t bear to ‘waste food’. The guilt and pressure their parents associated with leaving food uneaten left a deep imprint that pushed them towards overeating and lasted for decades.

Many parents in the last few generations taught their children not to waste food because ‘children in Africa were starving’. They unwittingly taught their kids a scarcity mentality around the availability of food. They taught them to feel a sense of guilt if they didn’t eat everything that was offered to them. They instilled a sense of angst around finishing meals and pressure to eat beyond when they felt full or wanted to stop. This creates a double bind that's very difficult to get out of: regardless of which eating choice you make, you feel bad. This emotional double bind results in an eating habit that has lasting repercussions and can be very difficult to eradicate.

Instead, teach an abundance mentality around food. Teach your children that they can stop when they feel full and save the rest for later. Teach them that you have enough food to share. Give food to food banks, drop meals off for new mothers or sick neighbors and invite people to dinner to share in the food you have.

Teach your children an abundance mentality around food. Teach them that you have enough food to share and that they can stop when they feel full. #Habits #HealthyEating



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2.

Grow vegetables with your kids

Then prepare and eat them together. If you want kale to be your child’s favorite food, then help them plant kale in a small garden. Give them the job of watering it, picking it when it’s ripe, and chopping it up. Eat it for lunch together. Kids love to be involved and love to eat what they’ve grown and it will quickly become a lasting favorite. Research actually shows that when kids grow kale in a garden, it becomes their favorite food!

Years later, your grown children might reminisce about the sweet taste of the kale or tomatoes they grew with you and notice that they still love caprese salad, still make their own tomato sauce fresh and they may even feel inspired to get out the tomato cages and plant some tomato starts with their little ones.

Peas and tomatoes are great vegetables to plant with children because they’re super easy to grow in just about any climate and kids can eat them right off the vine. Tomatoes are particularly easy to grow in a planter box if you don’t have a patch of earth and can also be grown indoors if you don’t have any space outside. The taste of veggies right off the vine is incomparable and it will spoil you for the imported, shelf-ripened store-bought versions. Vegetables from your own garden might even become your favorite food.

3.

Show kids how to eat without distractions

Don’t eat in the car or in front of the TV. Research on eating habits is really clear that distracted eating results in overeating and weight gain. It results in eating without conscious decision making about what or how much to eat. It disconnects you from your gut in a way that causes confused, irrational and mindless eating, in which your head is not listening to what your body is saying because it’s not paying attention to your body and can’t hear it anymore.

When your mind is listening to your gut, they communicate and work together to get, cook and eat what you truly need, what nourishes you, what makes you feel stronger and healthier. You’re physiologically programmed to do this. This ‘gut sense’ is also called mindful eating. And it’s naturally developed when you’re young by paying attention to your food and your senses while you eat, not by eating while distracted.

4.

Teach kids not to eat with their emotions

You teach your teenager not to drive when they’re angry to avoid accidents, right? Show your kids how to soothe their stress and emotional turmoil without resorting to food. Parents often want to stop the crying or cheer a child up as quickly as possible and take them to get ice cream or give them some other sugary treat. But this turns sweet treats into their go-to method for feeling better - it literally defines how they ‘treat themselves’ to something special in the future. As they grow into adults in an anxious and driven world, they’re going to need much better techniques for soothing themselves than that and you can set them on the right path now.

Emotional eating is a deeply rooted eating habit that plagues most obese people and is arguably the biggest cause of weight gain and inability to lose weight. It stems from using eating as your go-to way to soothe yourself when you’re upset, which is not only not very effective but also has many damaging health consequences. Teach children how to manage their big emotions in healthy, sustainable ways - without food. Hold them while they cry, give them undivided attention and love, reward them with special experiences, extra decision making power or time with friends. Do them a life-long favor by avoiding putting a dessert in front of them to make them feel better.

5.

Make food a time of social connection

For thousands of years, we’ve ‘broken bread’ together as a way of connecting with each other, to welcome visiting strangers and to strengthen bonds within the tribe. When families eat together, they share things with each other that otherwise might go unnoticed. If you’re wondering how your teen is doing, eat dinner with them more often - eventually it will come out over conversation and good listening on your part.

Even though we see each other every day, we all have busy schedules and can so easily short-change our deeper communication, where we commiserate over problems together and share in each other’s successes. We can miss important undercurrents or shifts in mood that indicate something’s happened that might be best talked about.

Over food, conversation deepens and relationships get stronger. Teach children the habit of eating together in a warm, inviting way and give them the gift of a deeply ingrained habit that will strengthen their relationships and serve them throughout their lives.

Conclusion

Eating habits that are shaped when kids are young persist for decades and can be very difficult to change. You are shaping your children's relationship with food through your family routines.  You can implement these 5 habits ‘most of the time’, not perfectly, and still see great results. Let kids decide when they're full instead of forcing them to clear their plate. Help your kids start a small garden and pick ripe veggies to include in your meals. Don't eat in the car or in front of the TV. Help them develop a deep gut sense of how much food they need by paying attention when they eat. Teach children how to manage their big emotions in healthy, sustainable ways instead of giving them a sweet treat to distract or cheer them up. Talk with your children at mealtimes, and especially listen to them.

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How did your childhood shape your eating habits? Was it for the better or worse? Leave a comment below.