Sometimes I’m amazed I’m not fat. As a kid I used to be a little soft around the edges (and the corners and the sides), and somehow I grew out of it by playing a lot of sports. It certainly wasn’t through self-control though, of which I have none. I have a friend who weighs about 600 pounds and even he is amazed at the zeal with which I eat desserts. If there are cookies in the house, then tomorrow there will be no cookies in the house.

While sweets are my weakness, it’s really any snack food. I snack for the same reason Mallory attempted Everest: “Because it’s there.”

I’ve realized that two parts of the brain are largely to blame: the insula and the basal ganglia. It’s not that these regions are somehow deficient, just that our brains didn’t evolve to face a kind of environment where food is so abundant. Now the real story may be a bit more complex (there's a whole dopamine story I won't get into here), but in this post I’ll explain a little more about these regions and then give some tips to help change their activity and thus your snacking behavior.

The insula is a deep part of the temporal lobe, about an inch or two in from your temple. It’s largely responsible for process of interoception (No, not the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio). Interoception is the process by which you are aware of your own internal state. It’s how you become conscious of the sensations inside your own body, like what your heart feels like or your stomach. The problem is that it’s usually not a very specific signal, but more of a vague notion (e.g. “something seems to be a little off in my stomach area”).  When we get a vague sensation about the stomach we often jump to the conclusion “Oh, I must be hungry”. But that’s not necessarily the case. The job of interoception is made even more difficult, because the insula is influenced by emotions.

The basal ganglia is a collection of neurons deep in the brain that control habits. As I’ve said before these are largely unconscious. Snacking habits are ingrained in the basal ganglia through years of careful practice (those Pringles don’t eat themselves). But your basal ganglia needs a trigger before it starts enacting a particular habit. In the case of snacking that trigger comes from the insula.

So what can you do about it? Well the only way to break the habit is to have your prefrontal cortex intervene. Here are some suggestions to win the battle over snacking urges:

1. Calm down. When your insula alerts you that something’s a bit off, realize that maybe you’re not hungry; maybe you’re just stressed. Food can often be a calming influence. It shifts the autonomic nervous system away from “fight-or-flight” and towards “rest-and-digest”. But there are other ways to deal with stress that don’t involve Ben or Jerry. Get some exercise. Do some yoga. Listen to some good music. Call a friend just to say “hi”.

2. Distract yourself. Maybe you’re not hungry; maybe you’re just bored. The brain needs to focus on something. So if it doesn’t have something external to focus on, then the insula starts whining for attention. So sometimes when you think eating is the answer, some other activity might take its place.

3. Suck it up. And by “it” I don’t mean a milkshake. Your unconscious is very sneaky. Sometimes it tells you you’re hungry because it just wants to procrastinate. This is related to calming down (#1). Realize that you may indeed be hungry, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat. You won’t starve. If you were truly engaged in your work then you wouldn’t be hungry. Often we eat to avoid doing what we need to do. Tell yourself “I’ll work hard for 10 minutes and then I can have a snack if I still want it.” If you gave it a sincere effort then go have a snack. If you find that now you’re engaged in your work, then you probably won’t even think about it. If it starts to happen everyday that you can’t make it past 10 minutes, it might be time to start looking for a job that you might enjoy more.

4. Avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it. I have to thank my college girlfriend for teaching me a lesson about self-control that has shaped my food buying behavior ever since. It happened the first time we went grocery shopping together (shout out to Stop ‘N Shop).

At the supermarket I have a tendency to just walk down every aisle, because I often can’t remember what I need until I see it. But as I started to walk down aisle 3 she stopped and asked, “What are you doing?” I wasn’t sure how to answer the question. I looked up at the sign above the aisle, which read, “Cookies, Crackers, Chips”. She pointed out, “There’s nothing you need there. Don’t go down it.”

It’s much easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. Don’t buy food you don’t want to eat, and thus don’t walk down the aisle of food you don’t want to buy. If you can avoid it once at the supermarket, then it won’t be whispering to you from the cupboard for the next week.

5. Don’t get mad at yourself. If you start to crave something, or even if you start to snack, don’t get mad at yourself. It doesn’t help. Being mad at yourself is just an added source of stress that will likely lead you back to the fridge.

6. Maybe you’re just thirsty. The insula might be trying to tell you that something is off, and maybe that thing is that you’re just thirsty, not hungry. So drink some water. The water in your stomach may also communicate to your brain a greater feeling of fullness, and reduce your desire to eat.

7. Oral occupation. The basal ganglia wants you to do habitual movements, like put something in your mouth and chew. It doesn’t always care what that thing is. It’s mostly satisfied by whatever is closest and easiest so it doesn’t have to think about it. So if you feel like snacking, do something else with your mouth. Chew gum. Eat a carrot (no don’t dip it in ranch dressing) … which brings me to the concept of healthy snacking, since not all snacks are bad, but that’s for a future post.

If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

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How to Snack the Right Way is a reply by Alex Korb Ph.D.

About the Author

Alex Korb

Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA, is the author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.

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