in Health, Productivity

A hidden culprit to failed diets: Snacking

In the nuts aisle across many grocery stores exists a snack called chocolate covered almonds. They’re made by heating chocolate in a pot and combining the almonds in the final step — the same way they’re named. These mouth watering goodies used to sit in transparent can on my kitchen counter, right next to a container of Nutella. Let’s just say that was poor planning on a diet. Looking back on it, I think my reasoning was justified by an overestimation of my willpower and discipline. I was on a diet and had allocated calories to munching on a few chocolate almonds. But what should have been a measly 40 grams of chocolate almonds soon grew to a size I dare not count, and I remained completely ignorant of my intake.

If you’re on a diet then this may sound familiar to you. You put in work at the gym, diligently track your calorie intake, yet you step on the scale and notice zero progress — or even worse, backwards progress. You’re dumbfounded — after all, you did everything right. You monitored your calories and worked out hard. What happened?

A breakdown of what snacking looks like

Let’s use mini pretzels as our example.

The recommended average of carbohydrate intake is around 225 to 325 grams a day for an average person according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This is for a maintenance diet which does not promote weight gain or loss. For a diet, the person would be in a caloric deficit meaning the carbohydrate intake would be far lower than the recommended maintenance dose. For this example, let’s select 250 grams of carbohydrates as our daily target.

One serving of Snyder’s Mini Pretzels — about 30 grams or 19 mini pretzels — yields 23 grams of carbohydrates. 19 mini pretzels is negligible relative to the size of a bowl. If someone were to consume one cup of mini pretzels a day, that would amount to 128 grams of carbs, which is over half of the allotted carbohydrates for an average person. And this is calculated for a person consuming maintenance calories.

If you’re on a fat loss diet, your calorie consumption wouldn’t allow for much room after eating a cup of pretzels (or even half a cup). If you’re on a Ketogenic diet… well then you’re certainly out of luck with that much carb intake. As you can see, the numbers paint an ugly picture of what snacking can do to your regimen.

Why do we snack?

You may be thinking – Does he expect a person to shovel a cup of mini pretzels in one sitting?

It may seem unreasonable to expect someone to consume 1 cup of mini pretzels, but the duration of consumption is a critical factor that leads to this consequence.

The answer is: it’s possible for a person to eat a cup of mini pretzels in one sitting, but that scenario is unlikely. What typically happens is someone placing the pretzel container on a kitchen counter and munching on some every time they walk by. Over time, the consumed calories build up and people have trouble figuring out why they’re not losing weight. Snacking is the culprit.

But why do we snack? None of us set out to snack and jack up our calories. We intend to form healthy eating habits for a better lifestyle. Unfortunately, snacking is habit forming in the sense that each snacking action, however small it is, builds the unhealthy habit. Walking past your kitchen counter creates an association to munching on mini pretzels. Those mini pretzels become irresistible as the habit continues to grow.

It also helps fill up “empty time”. This is my term for a period where you’re doing a transactional activity — like walking to the kitchen — or when you don’t have anything to do. In order to feel productive, people fill up the time by grabbing a snack. This also lends itself to forming and building the habit, essentially producing a cycle of cue and reward.

How do we limit snacking?

Here are my three go to tactics for curbing snacking:

  1. Make snacking inconvenient. This means moving the snack to somewhere hard to reach or not buying it at all. You can also pair it as rewards for accomplishing something i.e. eating a serving of mini pretzels if you accomplish total steps for the day.
  2. Consciously journal your actions. If you find yourself reaching for the mini pretzels, document it out loud and in a journal to tally how often you snack. This makes it visible and apparent.
  3. Setup alerts during the most likely snacking times. Make your progress visible when you’re about to snack so it acts as a deterrent.

Why it matters

I’ve lost hundreds of pounds over the years by using a combination of tracking calorie intake, strong goals, and habits. The goal behind losing weight isn’t just to lose the pounds itself, but to form positive habits for a healthy lifestyle. Snacking lends itself as a negative habit that could quickly undo all of the progress you’ve accomplished during a fat loss phase. This is why it’s crucial to know when you’re forming negative habits and how to flip them into a positive habit.