If you read a lot of fitness books and websites, you’ll notice there are a few pieces of advice that get repeated over and over. Count calories. Eat more vegetables. Cut out liquid calories. Stop snacking between meals.
Now, most of these common pieces of wisdom are totally correct- you should watch what you eat, and vegetables are obviously healthier than soda. But totally abstaining from between-meal snacks? As one redditor explains, that’s much easier said than done.
In principle, it would be great if we could eliminate snacking, and only eat carefully planned out meals with carefully planned out nutritional content. In practice, doing so requires us to ignore a lot of hunger and food cravings. It saps our willpower, drains us of our energy, and makes us resent our diets. Most importantly, it’s damned hard to stick to, so it rarely works.
Granted, most people would benefit from cutting down on snacking- but eliminating it altogether is expecting too much. As Charles Duhig explains in The Power of Habit, (by far the best book ever written on habit formation- I highly recommend it) it is extremely difficult to eliminate a habit, but substantially easier to change a habit.
Habits consist of four components- there’s a cue, which initially causes you to engage in the habit. There’s a routine- the actual behavior you engage in. You probably think of habits as just the routine, but that’s just one of four components. There’s a craving which drives you to perform the routine. And finally, there’s a reward you get for performing the routine. This reward is always a physical or emotional feeling, like satiation or pride. Together, these four components form the habit loop.
So let’s suppose that you’re in the bad habit of snacking on ice cream sandwiches, which you keep in your freezer for some reason even though you’re trying to eat healthy. In this habit loop, eating the ice cream sandwiches is the routine. Your cue might be hunger, or boredom, or emotional distress, or an environmental cue such as snacking every time your favorite TV show comes on. The craving might be for satiation, distraction, or the emotional comfort you get from junk food. Finally, the reward might be that you feel full, the enjoyment you get from eating tasty food, or the feeling of emotional reassurance you get from eating your favorite comfort food.
As a side note: you need to figure out which of these three cravings is driving your snacking. Are you eating simply because you’re hungry? Do you eat just to distract yourself? Or are you an emotional eater? Or is it all of the above? Identify the problem, and finding a solution will be much easier.
Now, to eliminate the habit altogether, you would need to either stop the cue from ever happening, stop the routine from producing the reward, or eliminate the craving. So, can you stop yourself from ever feeling hungry, or bored, or sad? Can you make yourself not want to be entertained or comforted? Can you make it so food no longer makes you feel full, or stops being enjoyable? Probably not.
One exception here: if the cue is an environmental cue, you might be able to eliminate it, and thus extinguish the habit. For instance, if you snack after every time you have a big angry argument with your spouse (an example of emotional eating), you and your spouse might want to learn to express your grievances in ways that are more productive and less distressing.
Barring that, the only option you have is to change the routine- leaving the habit loop intact, but replacing the junk food with something healthier. (If you’re eating for psychological reasons, you could replace the cue with something other than food, but more on that later) Here’s how you do that.
Guidelines for healthy snacks
To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy- all healthy snacks have a few things in common. All unhealthy snack foods fail at least one of the following rules.
It should be ready to eat, or be easily prepared in a few minutes. Whereas you might spend a half hour or more preparing a meal, snacks are, by definition, something you grab and eat fairly quickly. If something takes more prep work than simply microwaving it for a few minutes, you’re unlikely to turn to it for a spur of the moment snack.
No liquid calories. Liquids aren’t very filling, and because they digest quickly, they don’t fill you up for long. They also tend to have a lot of sugar and other unhealthy crap in them. One exception to this rule: protein shakes, like Muscle Milk, are allowed (although protein bars would still be better since they’re more filling).
Don’t mix high carb and high fat. You can stay healthy by going low-carb and high-fat, or high-carb and low-fat. But when you mix a lot of carbs and fat in one meal or snack, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. The carbs cause an insulin spike, which in turn causes the fat to be stored directly as fat in your body.
It should have a significant amount of protein, or an insignificant number of calories. It’s vital that every meal contain a good amount of protein, since protein contributes to satiety, prevents muscle breakdown, and keeps your metabolism burning. However, with snacks you have an alternative- some snacks are almost totally devoid of calories. So you can have a protein snack- like nuts- or a non-caloric snack- like celery. But not a high-calorie, low-protein snack, like Pop Tarts.
It should have little or no sugar. Sugar digests slowly, doesn’t fill you up, causes an insulin spike which makes you store fat and feel like crap…just avoid sugar mmmkay? This also rules out most, but not all, fruits.
It should digest slowly. A good, healthy comfort food is one that fills you up a lot, for a long time, in proportion to how many calories it has. Snacks tend to be more filling if a) they’re not very calorically dense, b) they have protein, and c) they have fiber.
No grains. A lot has been written, particularly in the paleo community, about the evils of grains, an in particular gluten, gliadin, and FODMAPs (a kind of short-chain carbohydrate that your body has trouble absorbing). They cause indigestion, contain pesticides, fatten you up, and cause autoimmune disorders, plus I hear grains have been talking a bunch of shit about your momma. While I don’t think most people need to totally abstain from grains, it helps to cut down on them- and you can start by excluding them from your between-meal snacks.
Snack foods to get rid of
Okay, so now that you know the rules, let’s take a look at some common snack foods that don’t make the cut.
Popcorn. It’s a grain, it has high carbs and almost no protein, plus high fat if it’s buttered.
Anything with bread. Made of grains, often too low in protein as well.
Trail mix. While nuts alone can be a good snack in moderation, nuts mixed stuff like berries or M&M’s violate the high-fat, high-carb prohibition, and are too calorically dense overall.
Juice and soda. Liquid calories, sugar, no bueno.
Most fruit. This one surprises a lot of people. We generally think of fruits as being healthy, and they do have a lot of vitamins. Unfortunately most of them also have a lot of sugar. And not just any sugar, but fructose, which is particularly fattening due to the way it has to be processed by the liver. There are a few fruits which make good snacks though- we’ll get to them in a bit.
Smoothies. These usually contain fruit, they aren’t very filling for very long, plus they violate the liquid calorie rule.
Cereal. Cereal is made of grains, and doesn’t have enough protein. I don’t recommend eating it, ever.
Ice cream, candy, donuts, Pop Tarts. I hope I don’t have to explain these.
Okay, so now you know what not to eat. So what do you eat instead? Simple: kale. Replace all of your snacks with kale and eat that five times a day.
Just kidding. If there’s one thing I hate more than that backstabbing coward Ser Alliser Thorne, it’s kale.
Seriously though, here are your new favorite comfort foods
Water. Yes, water. A glass of water can be surprisingly filling. Plus, your body can easily mistake thirst for hunger- so next time you feel the urge to snack, it may just be that you’re dehydrated. Water makes a good first-line response to hunger- if you feel hungry between meals, drink a glass of water. If you’re still hungry 20 minutes later, then you can have an actual snack. Hate the taste of plain water? Try flavoring a pitcher of ice water with lemon, cucumber or strawberry, and keep it in your fridge.
Hard-boiled eggs. I know there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about eggs, so let me set the record straight: eggs rule. They’re high in protein, B vitamins, Iron and vitamin D. Even the saturated fat and cholesterol are good for you- they make the eggs more filling, and your body uses them to produce sex hormones. Most of the good stuff is in the yolk, so skip the egg whites and eat whole eggs. While you can cook them however you want, bulk preparing hard-boiled eggs ahead of time is the best way to make them a convenient snack.
Protein bars. Protein bars are high in protein, obviously. And from my research, I’ve found that most of my readers don’t eat enough protein. While protein shakes might have almost the same nutritional content, protein bars make a better snack simply because they take longer to digest, and therefore keep you full longer. Just make sure your protein bars aren’t glorified candy bars packed with sugar- my favorite brand is Pure Protein.
Caffeinated coffee or tea. Much like water, this has the advantage of having zero calories. The caffeine also an appetite suppressant, so this can be more effective than water at killing hunger. However, caffeine is also a diuretic, so it won’t slake your thirst. For best results, drink a glass of water and a cup or two of coffee. Mornings only, of course.
Bacon. I know the media’s been getting down on bacon lately, with a recent study showing that maybe it’s unhealthy. So let’s be clear: if you eat bacon each and every day, your odds of getting colorectal cancer will go up by about six percent. That’s a six percent rise in one very rare cause of death.
But if you swap junk food for bacon? You more than make up for that, by getting slimmer and reducing systemic inflammation. Plus, you get to eat bacon. A good portion size here would be 2-4 strips for the average woman, 4-6 for the average man, or 8 strips for a totally jacked alpha male who looks good in a tank top.
Apples. Apples are one of the few fruits that make good snacks. While they do contain fructose, they don’t have too much of it- plus they’re high in fiber, which further slows digestion, keeping you full longer. Limit them to one a day, however. To make an apple more filling, you can slice it up and sprinkle cinnamon on the slices.
Avocados. Another good fruit, avocados actually don’t have sugar. Instead, they have a small amount of fat. While they’re not that high in protein, they are high in fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin B-6.
Nuts. Unlike trail mix, nuts alone can make a good snack, since they have a good mix of fat and protein, with no carbs. However, you do have to be careful not to overeat them, since they’re so calorically dense. Limit nuts to one handful, and eat them slowly, with water.
Carrots and celery. Carrots and celery are almost completely devoid of calories- although they don’t have “negative calories” like some people claim. You can have as much of these as you want. If you want to dip them in something, skip the ranch and opt for a small amount of almond butter instead- that adds protein, fat, and vitamin E.
Fried vegetables, pre-cooked. If you like stir-fried vegetables, you can bulk prepare some and keep it in the fridge. Then when you’re hungry, you can microwave a handful.
Salad. Again, salads can be very low on calories, depending on what’s in it. Tomatoes and vegetables are good. A little bit of bacon or chicken, or an egg, are good in small amounts- too much and this goes from a snack to a meal. Croutons, oil and dressing are bad, so opt for vinegar or another non-caloric dressing. Be careful of dressings, even light ranch- that’s where people go wrong, and a salad loaded down with extra fats can easily get into the 500-1000 calorie range.
Sausage. If you like sausages, you can buy a pack of pre-cooked sausages at the grocery store, then microwave one for a snack. If you’re an insomniac like me, a sausage eaten an hour before bed can have a very beneficial tranquilizing effect. You can enhance this sleep-promoting effect by dipping the sausage in a very small amount of honey- but keep it under a tablespoon or you’ll be violating the high-fat, high-carb rule.
Banana Protein Bread- This recipe comes to us courtesy of Krista Stryker at 12 Minute Athlete. While I favor meat or vegetables as snacks, this is a great high-protein option for vegans/vegetarians, and the macronutrient mix is deal for giving you a burst of energy, without a subsequent crash. Just make sure and keep it to one slice (1/8th of the recipe) at a time!
Cheese. Cheese has largely the same nutritional profile as sausage, except that it usually isn’t clearly measured into servings for you. Carefully measure out your portion size, or it’s easy to go overboard on cheese, much as it is with nuts. Also like sausage, you can eat it with a tiny bit of honey before bed to help put you to sleep.
Kale. Kale’s healthy, even though it tastes like stale grass. So you could eat this, I guess.
Replacing snacking with non-food habits
One last thing worth noting is that if you’re snacking for reasons other than hunger, you can probably replace your snacks not just with healthier snacks, but with some form of behavior other than snacking.
For instance, suppose you snack when you feel bored and crave distraction- I used to do this. You could replace snacking with some other activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and even productive- for me it’s singing, or reading articles on marketing, fitness and copywriting.
On the other hand, you might be an emotional eater, turning to food for comfort when you feel down. In this case, you’d need to find something else you can draw comfort from- such as your favorite music, looking at family photos, or playing with a pet.
Regardless of which route you take, the principle is the same: identify the craving that drives you to snack on unhealthy foods, and replace those snacks with something healthier that fulfills the same craving- whether that’s an activity or just a healthier snack. You’ll lose fat, you’ll feel better, and you won’t even have to eat kale.
Getting healthy doesn’t require you to micromanage a bunch of tiny details- a few big wins like this will put you in better shape than 90% of the population. To learn about more big wins you can apply to your health and fitness, sign up for my free newsletter below.