Snack technology has improved dramatically in the last 30 years, elevating the casualties of modern snack warfare. The food companies know all about neurotransmitters like dopamine, and they’ve optimized their snacks to overwhelm your brain’s defenses. Snacking has now become a
battle between your neurophysiology and modern food science. And unfortunately, unless you know the secrets, your brain is no match for the Snack-Industrial Complex. But you can take advantage of brain chemistry to set you on the right path, often in the same way that food companies want to set you on the wrong path. So while my last post focused on how to avoid snacking, this post focuses on how to do it in a healthy way (a lecture on safe snacks if you will, to mix metaphors).
1. Cut up fruit into bite-size pieces. The food companies know that when snacks are bite-size you eat more of them. One, because you can eat them semi-unconsciously. Two, because bite-size things tease the dopamine system. Each one itself is a little unsatisfying, releasing just enough dopamine to keep you going, but not enough to satisfy you. So you end up staring at your reflection at the bottom of the box. That’s not great if you’re eating junk food, but great if you’re eating fruit. So to help give fruit a leg up in the battle against brownie bites, cut it up into bite-size pieces (or just eat bite-size fruit like grapes).
2. Buy healthy snacks. You’re generally only going to eat unhealthy snacks if they’re sitting around the house. That’s why food companies pour so much money into marketing and fancy packaging. As said in my last post, “avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it”. So don’t buy unhealthy snacks. It’s perfectly fine to treat yourself every once in a while if you’ve got a bad craving, but it should be a strong enough craving that you’re willing to drive to the store. If you’ve got hummus in the fridge, but also have ice cream in the freezer, which do you think is going to win? Your brain is generally lazy, and is most likely to go for whatever is easiest. So if all you’ve got laying around the house are healthy snacks, then chances are you’ll eat healthy snacks
3. Buy produce that’s in season. Of course you don’t want to eat an apple, because for like 6 months of the year they’re mushy balls of semi-sweetness. And yes, don’t get strawberries in February, or tomatoes in November. When fruits and vegetables are in season they taste so much amazingly better that they can actually compete against Cool Ranch Doritos or M&Ms and win. For me, it was very helpful to go to a farmer’s market, because the food there is always in season. (alternatively you could just google it).
4. Eat consciously. The basal ganglia unconsciously controls habitual behavior. So when the basal ganglia is fully in charge of eating, you will unconsciously shovel food into your mouth. Become conscious of the food that you’re putting into your mouth. Savor it. Chew it. Stop watching TV while eating. Stop eating while doing things other than simply eating. The added benefit of this is that crappy (i.e. processed) food does not usually stand up well to this kind of scrutiny, but good food will actually taste better. The more you pay attention to the good food you’re eating, the more dopamine will be released and the more satisfying it will become.
5. Once you pop, you can’t stop. Your brain uses the neurotransmitter dopamine both as a reward for finishing tasks that it wants you to do, and also to get you to start doing tasks that it wants you to do. So if you open a box of Pringles your brain views this as a challenge to finish the whole thing, and releases some dopamine to help you get started. That dopamine drives you to take the first bite, which releases more dopamine and pushes you to keep eating until you’re done. That’s why “Once you pop, you can’t stop”. But it doesn’t just apply to Pringles, you’re releasing dopamine for Girl Scout cookies, a bag of M&Ms, etc. So how do you not eat the whole package even though your brain is pushing you towards that goal? Put your snack in a bowl so that you can finish it. It might sound silly, but it’s usually good enough to trick your brain.
6. Sugar is a drug. What white powder purified from a South American plant causes more deaths and medical complications than any other? Sugar. The more sugar you have, the more your sweetness set point is raised, and the more you expect things to be sweet. While artificial sweeteners might not add calories, they still will increase your desire for sweetness. If you have too much processed sweetness in your diet, then you won’t enjoy the subtle sweetness of fruits and other real food. Sorry, this means eliminating soda, even diet soda, as your default drink (N.B. Juice isn’t actually that much better for you than soda). Try water or unsweetened tea.
7. Eat good food. If your meals aren’t satisfying, then your urge to snack will probably go up. I’m not saying you can only eat “healthy” food. Only eat good food (i.e. not processed food) that you enjoy. For more on this read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.
8. Don’t eat diet food. Generally diet food is a poor imitation of the real thing. If you’re craving chocolate, don’t have a low-carb chocolate ice cream bar. It will probably just tease your craving. Instead, get a small piece of good chocolate, and savor it. If you’re always denying yourself the thing you crave, not only will you not be satisfied, but the thing you crave will also become more appealing.
9. Don’t snack. This might sound like it’s counter to the whole reason for this post, but if you really have a problem with snacking, then don’t do it. Snacking implies a certain informality and lack of structure. The lack of structure can be very stressful for some people, because their brain may always be wondering, “Am I hungry? Should I be snacking now?” Continually having to make the decision not to eat can sap your willpower. So if you find that you are never satisfied and can’t eat in moderation, then instead of “snacking” just plan more small meals. You may find it’s easier to stick to a pre-planned eating schedule.
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