You may be wondering why I’d write an article on how to stop snacking. Many people claim snacks work well for them. In fact, 59% of American adults prefer snacking over just eating square meals. The problem? 73% of Americans are overweight or obese. This doesn’t directly mean snacks cause weight gain, but it’s certainly a reason to dig a little deeper on the topic.
Do They Really Work for You?
“Snacks work great for me” is a common response I’ll hear when I recommend avoiding, or at least minimizing snacks. However, when I break it down to people in the following manner, they usually tend to agree that snacks do not, indeed work for them. For a lifestyle intervention to work, it needs to be sustainable and practical. I could easily tell you to cut 1,000 calories from your diet, do 1 hour of cardio per day, and lift weights 6 days per week. You’d get very impressive results. But how likely are you to sustain that for a month, 3 months, 6 months, forever. The thing about health and fitness is that you need to continue to do the work, or else you slowly (or quickly) return to where you started. Think of it like income. If you work super hard for 3-6 months and make a ton of extra money, but then you stop, do you think you’ll be able to sustain it for life? Or, even worse, you stop working and start spending money on a lot of expensive toys, vacations, and gifts. What happens to your finances? Fitness and health are the same. You can’t just grind hard for a couple of months and then hope it lasts. When you do this, you also run the risk of rebounding and going back to where you started or even worse. So, when you say “snacks work for me”, you must think of it in this way. Are snacks still working for you? Or did they work temporarily, but now you’re back to square one. There are some people who may indeed benefit from eating regular snacks. These people are exceptions, not the rule.
Why don’t snacks work for most people? Every time you eat something, you need to exercise some willpower in order to stop eating it. That is, unless the food you’re eating makes you full enough to want to stop eating. Common snack recommendations include fruit, nuts, popcorn, various energy/protein bars, veggie sticks, “protein boxes” (which, ironically, usually have more carbs and fat than protein) and other reasonable, but small portioned food. There’s nothing wrong with these foods inherently, but they all have something in common. To get full enough to not have to exercise willpower to stop eating them, you’ll have to eat a lot of calories worth.
While eating a piece of fruit with a serving of nuts is certainly not bad for your health by any means, it’s also not enough food to satiate most people. Nuts in particular are a tough one. They’re packed with nutrients and eating nuts regularly can have a positive impact on your health. There’s a huge caveat though: nuts are extremely calorie dense. For example, let's take a look at a popular nut - almonds. There are a mere 23 almonds in 1 serving (about ⅓ of a handful), and that serving contains 165 calories, 6 grams of protein, 6 grams of carbs, and 14 grams of fat. If you’re up for an experiment, next time you’re hungry, go eat 23 (no more, no less) almonds, and note how you feel afterwards. I’m willing to bet most of the people reading this will still be just about as hungry as they were before they ate the almonds.
The Problems With Snacking
One of the major problems with snack foods is even if you’re trying to do the right thing by eating nutritious, quality food, a snack-sized portion isn’t satiating, at least for the majority of people. Willpower is a finite resource, in that we can only call upon a certain amount of it each day. Using our willpower every single time we eat will not only make it harder to maintain this style of eating long term, but it’ll also detract from the potential willpower could otherwise use on important things throughout the day.
Another issue with snacks is that many people eat them simply out of habit, not necessarily because they’re hungry. Eating when not hungry isn’t the best strategy for weight loss. In fact, it’s next to impossible to lose weight consistently if you’re never hungry. There’s a lot of fear around feeling hungry, and getting over that fear is a very important step in the process. Being hungry is a completely normal, harmless feeling. Developing the ability to be more in tune with your body and its hunger signals is a great skill to learn when it comes to improving your nutrition.
Finally, many people don’t reach for the right foods when it comes time for a snack. Whether this is a mindless or mindful activity doesn’t really matter. When you grab a handful or two of chips, crackers, cookies, candy, or whatever else you may be inclined to snack on, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Does it taste good while it’s in your mount? Of course it does. There’s no denying that. But even if you have the ability to cut it off after a handful or two, you’ve just consumed 200-500 completely empty calories, and what goes on inside your body when you do this isn’t favorable, from both a physical health and cognitive performance perspective.
But let’s be honest. When was the last time you were able to consistently (meaning, over several consecutive months) eat 1 handful of chips, a single cookie (or ½ a big cookie - some single cookies are 700+ calories), or ½ a donut?
Don’t get me wrong, some people are certainly able to do this without needing to summon any willpower. More power to them. But more commonly, a handful becomes 3 handfuls, becomes 7 handfuls. Or ½ a donut becomes 3 donuts. Things tend to spiral out of control quickly, and before you know it, you’ve eaten 900 calories of processed food that doesn’t nourish your body or enhance your performance in any meaningful way. Doing this occasionally will not ruin your progress. But doing this on a regular basis makes maintaining a calorie deficit next to impossible.
If you can relate to any of the above scenarios, hopefully you’ve come to terms with the fact that you could probably benefit from snacking less.How to Kick The Snack Habit
Fortunately, there’s a way to decrease your desire to snack, while simultaneously improving your ability to lose weight and keep it off. It doesn’t require a ton of willpower, either. It certainly will require some effort early on, but It’s actually quite simple once you make it a priority. It all starts with protein. Eating more protein every time you eat a meal will not only provide your body with valuable amino acids that are essential to your health and wellbeing, but it’ll also keep you full for much longer between meals (when you’d normally reach for a snack). I won’t get too into the weeds with protein’s many benefits, but to learn more about it, you can check out these 2 articles (protein Pt.1, Protein Pt. 2)
The first step in this process is identifying what a high protein meal looks like. In my experience helping people with their nutrition, a lot of people are completely unaware of what truly high protein looks like. Just because a meal contains protein, does not mean it’s high in protein. There’s a pretty simple exercise I like to do to really open people’s eyes about protein (and how little of it they’re likely eating). Here’s how it works:
The tools you’ll need:
- A weight scale (or knowledge of your current weight)
- A food scale (do not rely on “eyeballing things” - you don’t need to use a scale forever, just for this exercise)
- Internet access
Step 1: The amount of protein (in grams per day) required for sufficient muscle building, satiety, and health is going to be based on one of two numbers:
Current bodyweight (BW)- use if you’re relatively lean (sub ~17% male, sub ~25% female)
Goal bodyweight (GBW) -use if you’re overweight or obese (over 17% male, over ~25% female)
*If you have access to a dexa scan or bodpod, you can also use your fat-free mass (FFM) as the starting number
Step 2: Decide how many meals (NOT meals + snacks) you’re going to eat daily. For most people, 3-4 meals spaced evenly throughout the day is a great target.
Step 3: Divide the first number (BW/GBW/FFM) by the second number (# of meals)
Step 4: The result is the number in GRAMS of protein you’ll be shooting for EACH meal
Step 5: Make your normal breakfast.
*If you’re eating eggs, use the nutrition facts on the label (1 egg= ~6 grams of protein). If you’re eating another source of protein, measure it in grams using a food scale.
Step 6: use a macro tracking app like Myfitnesspal, or a simple google search to see how many grams of protein is in your breakfast.
Step 7: You’ll probably be quite shocked at how much you’re off by. No sweat - add more of the protein source (for example, for breakfast, perhaps it’s eggs or egg whites, more cottage cheese, leftover meat from dinner, or even a protein shake on the side). This is your new meal.
You’ll then repeat this for each of your remaining 2-3 meals that day. Then you’ll do the same thing for the remainder of the week.
Let’s take a look at an example
Step 1: Protein target: 200 lbs lean male (10% bodyfat) - which means he’ll be shooting for 200 grams of protein/day *He can use any number between ~160 and 200. If he weighed 250 and his goal BW was 210, he’d be fine using 210
Step 2: Meals: He’s going to eat 4 meals per day (breakfast, lunch, dinner 1 [mid afternoon], dinner 1)
Step 3: Protein per meal: 200/4=50
Step 4: Each meal will have 50 (+or- 5) grams of protein
Step 5: He makes breakfast with 4 eggs scrambled with veggies, 2 slices of sourdough toast with jam.
Step 6: he google searches “grams of protein in 4 eggs” (there’s protein in bread, but the quality of it is so low that I don’t recommend counting it - you can if you’d like)
Step 7: He learns there are only 24 grams of protein in 4 eggs (6g/egg). Because eggs are high in fat as well, he adds 2 more eggs and 1/2 cup of egg whites (~25 grams of protein). He’s now at 50 grams of protein.
He eats his breakfasts and is blown away by how much more full he is. 2-3 hours later? Still full.
He does the same thing for each of the remaining meals that day. Chances are, although he may think of snacking out of habit, he’s likely not hungry for them because he’s added so much protein to his meals.
This is an eye-opening experience for many people. I’m usually a proponent of recommending very small, gradual changes rather than drastic ones like this (many people I’ve done this with have to literally double their protein intakes per meal - sometimes they’re not even hungry for their last one!). But this is one of the few times I recommend a larger intervention, at least for a couple days, just to see what it looks like.
A Few Common Questions:
What if I can’t finish my meal? This is a very common occurrence. Doubling the protein content of a meal (which is often the case) makes it significantly more filling. If this is the case for you, simply save the protein source for the next meal, or eat it in place of what you’d usually eat for a snack when you feel hungry for it. Technically this is still snacking, but it’s far better to eat pure protein for a snack than it is to eat a few nuts and a piece of fruit and have to will yourself to stop. Another option is to start with 3 meals, no matter what. This will drop the protein content per day by a full fraction (in this example from 200-150 grams). This is still just above sufficient protein intake, and as time goes on, it’ll become easier to consume. After you’re used to eating 3 sufficient protein meals, you can try adding a 4th.
What if my protein source also contains a lot of fat? Foods like eggs, full fat dairy and fattier cuts of meat all have fat accompanying the additional protein. There are a couple options here, and both tend to work well.
You can add more of the same food, and know that you’re still likely going to be eating fewer calories than you would be if you were regularly snacking.
You can add a lean source of protein to cover your bases. In the example I used above (added 2 eggs and ½ cup egg whites), he could’ve added just 1 full cup of egg whites (egg whites are pure protein), fat free cottage cheese, greek yogurt, a protein shake, or even some lean meat like a sirloin or chicken. These are all pure protein sources with minimal fat. Adding pure protein only increases the calorie content by a little bit (25 grams of protein is only 100 calories).
Won’t this put me over my calories? Generally speaking, increasing your protein intake significantly will result in significantly less desire to eat other, calorie containing foods that you’d normally eat. Add to that, it’s very difficult to store protein as body fat. Most people who try this out end up eating fewer overall calories on a regular basis than they would if they ate smaller meals and 2-3 snacks per day. Obviously, you’ll still want to ensure you’re consuming adequate healthy fats and enough carbs to support your activity levels. Even if you go over your calories for a few days when you first try this out, the trade-off of learning what high protein looks and feels like is beyond worth it. Easy adjustments can then be made to your daily intake to put you on the path to success!
Wrapping it up
We’ve been conditioned to believe snacking is a good idea for weight loss, and that avoiding hunger at all costs is necessary to make progress. Unfortunately, to lose weight successfully, being hungry once in a while isn’t only normal, it’s necessary. For most people, it’s not possible to lose weight without feeling hungry from time to time. You’ll certainly feel less hungry using this strategy, and you won’t need to use willpower to stop eating as frequently, but it’s still going to occur. Being able to accept hunger and know that won’t harm you is a big step in the process.
In the end, most people need to eat more protein and fewer snacks. By simply Identifying how much protein you need per day, per meal, and then constructing meals to fit that bill, you’ll be well on your way to killing two birds with one stone. It’ll take some effort, especially at first. But in just a few days, you could drastically reduce your calories while simultaneously decreasing your hunger and desire to snack.
Thank you for reading! Have you tried something like this before? If so, let me know how it went for you. If not, are you willing to try it? If you have any questions or comments, leave them below!