If your snacking visits to the fridge are getting out of control, you're not alone. We spoke to Second Nature nutritionist Tamara Willner to find out more about why we reach for snacks – and how to stop.
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Why are we snacking so much?
“Given the current environment with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are likely to be experiencing a higher level of stress and anxiety,” says Tamara. “On top of this, we’re also adjusting to new routines, which involve working from home and limited social interaction.
“Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that we’ll be experiencing heightened emotions, which for some of us can mean we’re more likely to turn to food as a source of comfort and snack often.”
“Taking the guilt away from comfort eating is the first step to overcoming it,” explains Tamara. “The most important thing to remember is that emotional eating isn’t a result of personal weakness or a lack of willpower. Instead, it’s a combination of adaptive coping mechanisms and biological pathways established by the body to help it survive.”
Fight or flight
“When we’re exposed to a sudden threat, either physically or mentally, our body engages the ‘fight or flight’ response. This causes the release of ‘cortisol’, commonly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol then triggers a cascade of events in the body including an increase in blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the muscles.
“If we suddenly need to run from a predator, like our ancestors did hundreds of years ago, this response is very useful. However, nowadays, small daily life stressors tend to trigger the full ‘flight or fight’ response, which results in a state of chronic stress and consistently high levels of circulating cortisol. The outbreak of coronavirus may be quite a large stressor for many of us at the moment, triggering this response.”
How can stress make us feel hungry
Tamara explains: “High levels of circulating cortisol can increase our appetite and motivation to eat. Research has found that people who had higher levels of cortisol were more likely to snack throughout the day, eat more food overall, and have higher BMI compared to those with lower levels of cortisol.”
How can we control and stop snacking?
A recent survey by Second Nature into how our lifestyle habits have changed since the pandemic found that over 50 per cent of us are eating more snacks than usual.
This highlights that we’re not alone when it comes to experiencing changes to our snacking habits recently. The good news: there are effective strategies that we can use to help us take back control and manage snacking.
Tamara says: “It’s important not to be too hard on yourself, as our brain has built these habit pathways associated with snacking, so it might take time and practice to unpick these behaviours! Here’s how….”
Three ways to stop snacking today
1. MINDFUL EATING
“Mindful eating is an important tool to help us become more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it.
2. BE PREPARED
“When you do have a snack, it’s important to eat it distraction-free. If we’re preoccupied with our surroundings, such as the TV, our mobile, or work, it’s difficult to focus on the process of eating entirely. This often leads to us eating more than what our body needs, or eating past the point of fullness. Try eating your snack at a table or on the sofa, while focusing solely on the process of eating.
“On top of this, fully engage your senses of taste and smell, focusing on the flavour and texture of what you’re eating. This will help you enjoy it fully and leave you feeling more satisfied rather than wanting more.”
“Another effective strategy you can try is ‘if/then’ scenarios,” suggests Tamara. “Think about what’s triggered you to snack in the past, and write down some solutions for the future. Then when you’re faced with these situations in the future, you’ll feel better prepared with a plan to manage them.”
- If I’m bored at home and get the urge to snack, then I’ll listen to a podcast
- If I’m feeling upset after watching the news and I get a craving for ice cream, then I’ll do a crossword puzzle for 5 minutes
- If I feel overwhelmed with a lack of routine, then I’ll call my friend for a chat
3. REMOVE THE GUILT
“It’s important to try and remove the guilt attached to regular snacking. One way to do this is to stop labeling foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘junk food’, ‘treat’, or ‘sin’. This can foster a negative relationship with food and create an ongoing cycle of comfort snacking,” says Tamara.
“Instead, there should be foods we enjoy every day and foods that we enjoy less often. Try to avoid putting strict rules around food, like ‘I can’t eat a bag of crisps during the week’ or ‘I’m not allowed to drink fizzy drinks ever again’.
“Generally, strict rules tend to have the opposite effect of making us crave these foods even more, then causing binging episodes and feelings of guilt or shame if we break one of these rules.
“Try to have a more balanced viewpoint, such as ‘I’ll only have chocolate when I truly feel like it.’ Then allow yourself to enjoy the chocolate when you want it and move on afterwards.”