Do you feel guilty sometimes when snacking? Many people fall victim to the triggers that make us binge eat. By design, snacking is supposed to be a good thing. But for many people, it feels like following a carrot on a stick onto a path of overeating.
You know what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to spread a tablespoon of peanut butter on some apple slices. The reality is you wind up spooning it—and almost half of the jar—directly into your mouth. Then you wash it down with a bag of trail mix. Sound familiar?
People struggle with overeating because of boredom than any other emotion. The healthy snack can result in two emotions:
- You’re not quite sure why you’re gaining weight (or struggling to lose) because you’re not eating anything bad.
- You’re swimming in guilt because of over eating snacks. You think, “Why can’t I just snack like a normal human being? Why am I so weak?”
The problem is not uncommon. In fact, you’re no different than most people that can’t quite figure out how to make healthy snacks work for their meal plan or avoid overeating. While snacking can be a good solution to fixing broken diet plans, willpower is hard for everyone. And there are certain situations where you’re set up for a fall and you don’t even recognize it. These situations are called triggers, and they can ruin your best-laid plans.
Everybody has triggers. You see them commonly with people that battling binge eating disorder (BED), but overeating is not just a problem for people with a clinical diagnosis.
Food triggers can be physical (when you’re tired), mental (when you’re stressed), or have to do with the foods you eat (some contain a sugar-salt-fat combo that’s actually designed to make you want more). The trick to breaking free of overeating is learning your triggers and understanding why they cause you to eat more.
Snack Triggers—And Why They Set You Off
The Trigger: Feeling sad, down, or depressed
Studies show people crave sweets when they are feeling down. This research found that people ate larger amounts of hedonic foods—popcorn and M&Ms—when they were in a sad state, and ate more of a less gratifying option (raisins) when they were feeling happy.
The Trigger: Stress and anxiety
Your body responds to stress by kicking off a “fight or flight” reaction that causes the hypothalamus to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone. That’s a fancy way of saying it shuts down your appetite. That sounds like a good thing, but that’s only in the short term.
When that stress becomes chronic (as it does when you’re worried about things like money, your job, or your marriage), then your body’s response changes. Your adrenal glands release another hormone, called cortisol, which increases your appetite. Your body will also secrete insulin, which promotes food intake and fat storage. That’s where things go from bad to worse and overeating kicks in. Studies show that stress not only causes you to consume more food, it also leads the desire to select higher-fat foods.
The Trigger: Lack of sleep
Ever wonder why you seem to crave cheeseburgers more after an all-nighter? Contrary to popular belief, overeating from a lack of sleep is not the result of having more available hours to eat. It’s because the desire for unhealthy snacks becomes hard-wired into your circuitry.
Your body tends to produce more ghrelin—the “hunger hormone”—when it lacks sufficient rest. And studies have proven that you’re driven to want higher-calorie comfort foods when you are tired.
The Trigger: Boredom
This scenario will probably feel familiar: You’re at home, there’s nothing going on, so what do you do? You pop into the pantry and search for some “entertainment.” Why does this happen? Because people will do anything to escape monotony.
The Trigger: You’re distracted
There’s a reason why a bag of chips disappears so much faster when you’re in front of the TV-memory influences consumption. Studies found that when people aren’t looking at the food they eat—you know, in the same way that those chips don’t spend a whole lot of time in front of your eyes when watching your favorite TV show—they eat much more food.
The Trigger: Dehydration
If you’re the type of person who finds salty foods irresistible, you may want to try a glass of water first. Researchers have found that your thirst and appetite for sodium share a lot of the same neural mechanisms. Again, you might not care about “neural mechanisms,” but it means that your craving for something salty might be a sign that you haven’t been drinking enough.
The Trigger: Hyper-palatable foods
Reward cues—what your brain tells you about the foods you eat—are major influencers over what and how much you consume. Researchers have observed that when people are given unlimited access to highly rewarding foods like cheeseburgers, chips and candy, they will overeat by about a thousand calories per day.
The Trigger: Non-satiating foods (foods that never quite make you feel full)
Science has shown that protein, fiber, and water are positively associated with satiety. In other words, they make you feel full, which helps you eat less. Foods low in those nutrients but high in fat do not provide a feeling of fullness that’s on-par with the number of calories they deliver.
Practical Solutions to Overeating Triggers
Here’s a quick rundown of practical solutions to your overeating triggers:
Sleep: If a lack of sleep is your overeating trigger, make six to eight hours of shuteye (per night) a non-negotiable part of your routine. Go as far as scheduling a bedtime and wake time every day, so that you don’t fall into old patterns.
Dehydration: If you think dehydration might be an issue, drink more water. That’s obvious, but the best way might be to buy 3 water bottles. Put one at your desk at work, one by your bedside table (or near the TV), and a third in your car. Not enough drinking is usually a result of not thinking about drinking. By creating a visual reminder (the water bottle), you’re putting yourself in a position to drink more.
Distraction: To address distracted eating, avoid having your meals in front of a TV or a computer.
Too much goodness: Clean that junk out of your cupboards and you’ll be better positioned to succeed. Or, simply put the foods that you desire most (but don’t want to completely remove) in an area that you don’t visit as often (like a different cabinet in your home). The less you see it, the less likely you are to grab it in a pinch.