Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
ATLANTA — The new year brings with it some old circumstances: working from home, self-isolating again and having close access to food almost all of the time.
Some of us may enjoy more home-cooked meals and not having to walk too far for a snack, but working close to the refrigerator poses a challenge to maintaining healthy eating habits. Rest assured, there are ways to minimize mindless snacking and filling up on empty calories, even when you can't socially distance from your kitchen cabinet.
After years of nutrition counseling, I see that my clients' judgment about their eating is a big predictor of future behaviors. If you berate yourself for overeating, it can cause you to go down a spiral of feeling bad, which can lead to more emotional eating. On the flip side, being gentle with yourself can help you establish a healthier mindset when it comes to indulgences, and this can allow for a more balanced lifestyle.
I have found that incorporating mindful strategies around eating — which aren't about judgment — can be very helpful for those struggling with "unconscious" eating. Below are some practical tips that can help you minimize unnecessary snacking and get the most enjoyment from food.
Stop, think, eat
Before grabbing that cookie or bag of chips, stop and ask yourself, "Do I really want this now?" or "Am I craving this food because I'm hungry or because I'm bored or stressed?" Think it through — If you do want a snack, go for it. But if your answer is no, you've stopped yourself from excessive nibbling. The idea is to make the choice to eat a conscious decision.
The hunger meter is a tool that incorporates the "stop, think, eat" strategy, as it allows you to pause and gauge your level of hunger before eating. If you are reaching for a snack but realize that you are not really hungry, you may be craving something else, according to Wendy Sterling, a registered dietitian and co-author of "How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder." Try going for a walk, taking a shower, calling a friend, or taking a nap.
Fill your kitchen with fiber-rich foods
It's pretty difficult to mindlessly munch on high-fiber foods like vegetables, salads and fruits. That's because fiber contributes "bulk" and fills you up quickly. Fiber-rich foods also help to keep your blood sugar levels steady, which can help prevent impulsive snacking and overeating at meals.
Don't bring it home
The decisions you make at the point of purchase greatly predict your ability to stay on track. Simply put, if you bring it home, you will eat it. If you don't want to derail your diet goals, leave snacks that will sabotage your efforts in the grocery aisle.
Practice portion control
When choosing snacks, avoid bulk-size bags that easily enable mindless nibbling. Go for preportioned snacks, or if you wish to buy larger bags, portion the snacks at home in small bags or containers.
Schedule meal and snack times. It's important, especially when working from home, to stop and take a break to eat. Even better, plan ahead what it is you will eat for lunch or for a snack. Honoring your food breaks will help you avoid cravings and will give more structure to the day. It will also help you avoid nervous nibbling during stressful work.
Plan for intentional indulgences
Similar to planning for meals, you can plan for a splurge. I most often think of these indulgences in relation to birthday parties or dinners out (think a piece of decadent chocolate cake), but even during everyday situations, planning for treats can help to minimize preoccupation with sweets and prevent overeating. If you are craving chocolate, set aside a few Hershey's kisses to eat after lunch. If you love pizza, enjoy it once a week for lunch or dinner. This can help to minimize obsessive thoughts about these foods, too, because you have given yourself permission to enjoy them.
Eat at the table, not at your desk
Creating a space to enjoy meals and snacks can help you avoid unconscious eating. Find a table or island or any place where you like to eat and designate it as your eating zone in the house. Eat slowly and savor every bite. Pay attention to the flavors and textures of foods so you can get the most pleasure from your meals.
Get rid of distractions
Scrolling through social media or watching Netflix while eating takes the focus away from your food and prevents you from registering when you are full. In fact, people who played a game of solitaire on a computer while eating ate faster, ate nearly twice as much and felt less full than people who were not distracted while eating, according to a study that registered dietitian Lisa Young cites in her book "Finally Full, Finally Slim." Put away all screens, phones and anything that will prevent you from being present while eating.
Close the kitchen
Decide when the kitchen will be "closed for the day," and shut off the lights and close any doors. This can be very helpful in avoiding nighttime nibbling.
Other tips worth trying
Here are some other tips that can help you with mindless snacking:
Take a tea break
Sipping tea can also help to keep cravings at bay. "Drinking herbal tea with a little honey provides a speed bump; it makes you think for a minute about having a snack or meal that may be unnecessary," registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix previously told CNN.
Keep a food and mood journal
Writing down what you eat and how you feel at the time can help you identify triggers and minimize impulsive snacking. Additionally, writing down your daily diet at the start of each day can give you more structure and keep you on track.
Get enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep can cause us to consume up to 800 extra calories, according to a recent study. It's thought that sleep deprivation may cause our hormones to stimulate hunger, and/or suppress hormone signals associated with fullness. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
You can gradually take on these 12 tips by working in one or two strategies into your routine every week. This approach will help you ease into eating more mindfully.