FilesYaniv Cohen

The Science of Snacking

FilesYaniv Cohen
The Science of Snacking

Article by:

Skipping a meal here or there won’t cause harm. However, when it becomes a habit and causes mindless overeating or food binges, it can result in harmful metabolic changes in the body. So how do you manage on a day to day basis without blowing your diet or living in a constant state of denial?

Start with the basics. Don’t leave huge gaps between meals. Regular, healthy meals will sustain feel-good levels of your neurotransmitter, dopamine and maintain productive energy levels.

Make time for breakfast. A nutritionally balanced start to your day not only plays a significant role in reducing food cravings but has been shown to lower daily calorie consumption too.

You’re at your most productive in the morning. Plan your biggest and hardest tasks then because achieving a goal, completing a task you’re proud of or learning something new will keep you motivated and positive.

Prepare fresh, healthy snacks and meals. It won’t happen immediately, but over time, healthy foods will begin to release the same feel-good response you used to get from junk food.

If you’re not hungry but you feel like picking, firstly check your mood. Are you anxious, stressed or bored? Choose an action like going for a walk. Brisk walking (or any exercise, really) appears to provide alternative stimulation that interferes with thoughts about food. You’ll notice that regular walks, especially outdoors, will improve mood and reduce stress as well.

If you’re hungry, prepare to make more informed choices when choosing snacks and foods to eat. Be very careful of caving to processed foods. Most commercial junk foods deliberately appeal to your dopamine receptors so you eat more of them, more regularly. It’s not your lack of willpower that has you licking the crumbs from the bottom of the packets!

The rush you get from junk food can be a hard habit to break because the reward is so intense. This is one ‘food group’ I recommend avoiding and make it easier on yourself in the long term. Find a replacement that’s healthier.

Snacking is also a great opportunity to work on eating your daily servings of 2 fruits and 5 vegetables.

1. Use fruit cut into cubes to release dopamine. Bite-sized snacks tease the dopamine system into rewarding you. Eating just one bite is unsatisfying. If you’re eating junk food, that’s the reason you don’t stop once you start. But if you’re eating fruit, you’ll eat your two servings minimum per day.

2. Keep healthy snacks on hand. See the download for a list of ideas. It’s crucial you have some instant, ready-to-eat food around the house. Being prepared with foods you know are healthy prevents you overindulging in junk food. My top tip is the air dried apple or apple chips. A packet is sweet and full of crunch but oddly satisfying. Or wasabi flavoured seaweed. Crunchy and delicious.

3. In season or frozen fruits and vegetables are the cheapest. And the most delicious. You can even do things like freezing grapes when they’re plentiful. Bananas freeze well too. They can be used for pureeing to make ‘ice-cream’ or smoothies.

Take a few pieces to work each week so you always have something sweet and fresh on hand. I like to cut up lots of fresh vegetables each week and separately pop them into containers in the fridge. Then, if I’m scrambling for something instant — I have veggies! Perfect on their own or for dipping.

4. Be mindful. If you snack, don’t multitask. Just take time out, give yourself a break and permission to enjoy what you’re eating away from distractions. The more you pay attention to the food you’re eating, the more dopamine will be released and the more satisfying it will become.

5. Understand that your brain sees an unfinished snack as a challenge.It wants to reward you for a job well done. If you don’t eat all your snack, your brain won’t use that neurotransmitter dopamine as your reward so you won’t feel satisfied. Overcome this by portioning out your snacks into serving sizes so you get the win without overeating.

6. Focus on eating three main meals per day. Don’t think you can fool your brain into eating less by scrimping on your main meals. It will simply respond by increasing your desire to snack. Starvation stimulates overeating so essentially you’re sabotaging yourself. Add lots of vegetables to meals — you have five servings to reach each day, and that’s a lot. You need to focus on this each meal time. There should be no reason to go hungry.

7. Don’t snack. Despite these hacks, some people struggle with snacking. And if this is you, focus on main meals and try to avoid snacking where possible. So if you find that you are never satisfied and can’t eat in moderation, then instead of “snacking” just plan meals. You may find it’s easier to stick to a pre-planned eating schedule, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

8. Try to eat a little protein at each snack. Combine vegetable sticks with hummus or a boiled egg. Try fruit with greek yoghurt. Protein helps satisfy your hunger for longer.

9. Find another reward. Did you know completing small regular tasks releases dopamine? As does seeing a list of daily accomplishments. Exercise or activity releases a bucket load — go for a brisk walk for 10–15 minutes. Or do something creative. Reward yourself regularly and overcome the need to replace your dopamine with food.

10. Eating fresh, healthy foods is the best way to help your body access a wide range of micronutrients. If your diet helps you to maintain decent levels of iron, B6, Folate and Vitamin E, research suggests that this assists your brain maintaining healthy levels of dopamine and receptors essential for receiving your deserved rewards.