One of the most difficult parts of trying to change your diet is that it requires you to change what you eat all the time: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This contributes to a major reason why so many people either fail to keep going on their diets or eventually stop; it’s just too big of a change. I’ve talked before about how it’s a lot easier to change your habits by Breaking them Down, and you can do the same thing with your diet.
Snacking is an area that I see a lot of people drop the ball on when it comes to eating healthy. If you go your whole day eating healthy and sticking to your diet, it seems somewhat justified to end the day with some chocolate ice cream, or have that bag of goldfish between lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, this is also what makes it so hard to stick to the new diet. Every time you break from your new routine (just like with sleeping in or not going to the gym) you make it harder and harder to get back on the bus. By rewarding yourself with snacks, you directly undermine all of your other dietary efforts.
So instead of trying to adopt an entirely new diet, I’m going to suggest this: start just by changing your snacking habits. Don’t change your breakfast lunch and dinner habits, just start by changing what you eat in between. Ramp up to an entire dietary change, instead of shocking your system with a total overhaul, and you’ll have a much easier time with it.
But Isn’t Snacking Bad?
I don’t think so. I think it certainly can be bad for you, if your idea of a snack is an entire thing of Oreos, but if your snack is an apple or a cup of Greek yogurt you’re fine. The way I look at it is this: If you’re hungry enough to want a snack, then you probably didn’t eat enough at the last meal. If that’s the case, then you can either have a snack now and stave off that hunger, or you can make yourself wait until the next meal and eat then. The risk with the second option is that since you’ll be even more hungry than you otherwise would at meal time, you might overeat in reaction to the hunger and hurt your diet efforts. If a snack helps with portion control, then I say go for it.
Snacking because you’re bored though… that’s not so good. That’s unnecessary calories that will definitely undermine your other efforts. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. A lot of times when we’re not fully engaged in anything and thus bored, we habitually rummage through the refrigerator or pantry and get a snack because it’s something to do. I’d recommend finding another way to sate your boredom. Here’s a compilation of cute cat videos.
How to Change Your Snacking Habits
The first thing I’d recommend is take a couple of days and look at:
- When you snack
- What you eat when you snack
- Why you (think you) snack
This will give you a number of very useful insights that will make changing what you’re doing a lot easier.
If you’re snacking between lunch and dinner, maybe you need a bigger lunch. If you’re snacking at night, you might be staying up too late. As you get more tired you may feel that you need food to keep yourself energized, when you instead should maybe just go to sleep. I was in a class this past year with someone who brought a Nutella and Go snack to class every morning. If you’re doing that, you may need a better breakfast plan.
The other thing to note is why you think you’re snacking. If it seems to be at a set time every day (I usually have one around 4pm) then you’re probably just eating in response to normal afternoon fatigue. If however you’re snacking at random times, and always when you’re at your computer with nothing to do, you’re probably snacking out of boredom. “Be less bored” isn’t a great suggestion, so here’s 20 clips of cats hugging.
Control Your Options
Finally, what is it you’re snacking on? If you’re like me, you will grab whatever is both easy to eat and tasty. This is one of the biggest problems with junk food — it’s really easy to eat. So what do you do?
Throw it away. All of it. Right now. And don’t buy more of it.
The easiest way to control what you snack on is to control your options. It’s hard to say no when you’re staring right at a bag of chips, but when you’re at the grocery store and thinking “do I really want to have these be an option later?” It’s easier to commit to something in the future than in the present, so just say no and don’t buy them. By significantly limiting your options of snacks, you’ll help yourself a lot in terms of snacking healthier.
But I Still Want to Snack…
Buy healthier snacks, and I don’t mean those “100 calorie packs” of Oreos, those aren’t healthy. They’re just unhealthy in smaller quantities, which is even worse because they’ve been marketed so well that you don’t feel bad about eating them. Then you’ll eat a second… and a third… just don’t give yourself the option.
Tim Ferris in The 4-Hour Body says not to eat fruit because they’re unnecessary carbs. I’ll respectfully disagree until I meet someone who tells me their horror story about how they got fat from eating too many strawberries. I certainly don’t think fruit is a perfect snack, having no protein or good fats, but it does have good vitamins, is filling (largely from the amount of water) and tasty. Other good options include:
- Nuts (be careful with peanuts though, they’re addictive and you’ll eat too many)
- Greek yogurt (high protein:carb ratio)
- Cold cuts (ditch the bread though)
- Water (not a food, but can actually be “filling” especially if you’re just dehydrated and thus tired and thus hungry)
- Nothing (eat more at meals in anticipation of getting hungry later)
- Leftovers (usually very easy to reheat, this is of course assuming you had a healthy meal though)
You may want to tailor and adapt these depending on what diet you’re on, but it’s a good starting point.
Reinforcing good snacking habits is a little different than other habits, because as you change what you’re snacking on your desires in terms of what you want to snack on will change. It’s self reinforcing in that once you stop eating refined sugar, for example, you stop wanting it. Just as every time you eat a candy bar it becomes harder to not eat one, every time you don’t eat one it becomes easier to continue. It’s just those first few steps that are the most difficult, and then staying diligent when you feel particularly low on willpower.