More than almost any other topic, I get asked about snacks seemingly on a daily basis.
The topic of snacks and snacking could be super complicated or super simple depending on how you approach it.
I’m going to try and land somewhere in the middle with this post – we’ll talk about some specifics while leaving room for whatever unique scenarios you find yourself in. Part of what makes this such an interesting conversation is that snacking is not inherently good or bad – there’s no right or wrong here. There’s not even a “better” or “best” to point you toward.
Instead, we can zoom in on the who, what, when, where, why, and how behind snacking to help the bigger picture come into focus.
When it comes to talking about if/how snacks work with your goals, I’m sure you don’t really want to read some big lengthy post that has minimal relevancy for you. So what better way to answer your questions about snacking than with an actual Q&A style article?
In fact, just about every inquiry I receive about snacks can really be boiled down to two questions: How can I stop snacking? What can I snack on instead of junk food?
I’ll give you the short answers first, then we’ll head into the weeds a bit to learn more about the implications behind these two questions.
How can I stop snacking?
- Bored? Stop buying snacks
- Hungry? Eat bigger meals
What can I snack on instead of junk food?
- Protein shakes
- Cheese sticks
- Beef Jerky
- Smaller portions of regular meals
- Smaller portions of “junk foods”
- Individually packaged “junk foods”
- Literally anything
Ok, so these short answers were a bit tongue-in-cheek, but they’re true, right?
Let’s dig a little deeper into both of these questions to see if we can get to the bottom of this topic of snacking – we may discover that snacking isn’t actually the enemy here.
You asked: How can I stop snacking?
What you really meant: I think snacking is inherently bad. I often turn to food when I’m bored, and I’m trying to figure out what to do about it. When I’m dieting, I also get hungry between meals sometimes, and that can lead to out-of-control binges.
This question often arises when food becomes the proposed solution to boredom. As you may know from personal experience, this issue and solution is a total mismatch. If hunger isn’t the issue, then food isn’t the solution. Here’s where the two snippets from above come into play.
If you really want to stop snacking, the simplest strategy is to stop buying foods that you tend to snack on. Do you know what’s even better than exercising extreme, unshakable willpower? Not having to exercise any willpower at all! If you don’t have the food in your home at all, you won’t have to worry about snacking temptations because it’s not there in the first place. I know this sounds a bit drastic, but this can be a really detrimental issue for some people who deal with disordered eating habits. Even if you have a great relationship with food, it may be best to keep certain foods out of your reach during certain phases of your fitness goals.
As a side note on boredom, I recorded a podcast about this exact topic. The gist? Figure out why you’re bored in the first place and fill your schedule with more or more meaningful activities. You can listen to the full episode here.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself snacking because you are truly hungry, it’s worth pointing out that this is totally ok! The question of quitting snacking may be better diverted to the next question of smarter snacking. For many, snacks can be a great way of holding you over between meals, especially if you have irregular spacing between your normal/larger meals. It’s worth noting that a “snack” is simply a smaller meal. Re-framing it like this can help you to recognize that snacks aren’t limited to pre-packaged, sugar-laden, fiber-less foods – in fact, a snack could be anything at all! I often snack on smaller versions of my regular meals, such as a smaller serving size of chicken, rice, and veggies. I usually have these prepped in the fridge anyway, so they are always filling and super convenient – the definition of a snack!
That being said, you may also want to look at your normal/larger meals if you’re constantly hungry between them. Would it be helpful to eat a bigger breakfast to hold you over until lunch? Could you add another ounce or two of protein at lunch to help you make it until dinner? Would another cup of vegetables at dinner reduce the urge to grab a midnight snack? Snacking isn’t inherently bad as we’ve said, but it might be worth assessing your meals to see if they are less satisfying than they ought to be. For example, I used to eat the sub-300 calorie microwave meals for dinner in an effort to keep calories low – oftentimes though, hunger would strike less than an hour later which would lead to out-of-control snacking. This whole situation could have been avoided with a more satisfying dinner strategy.
You asked: What can I snack on instead of junk food?
What you really meant: I enjoy snacking. I think foods like chips, cereal, and candy can’t fit into my goal to lose weight, so I’m looking for other options. I also feel out of control when I eat these foods – I just want a bite but I end up eating the entire bag.
Let’s start by covering the basics: it’s not your fault that this question comes to your mind. This isn’t to say that you don’t have a responsibility to shop and snack responsibly, but food marketers are not exactly on your side here. The foods that we snack on the most (and tend to overeat) appeal to a few key intrinsic factors within us: we love sugar, we love fat, and we love great deals. Think about the foods that you consider to be snacking or “junk” foods. Do they taste good because they’re high in sugar? Probably. Do they taste good because they’re deep fried and high in fat? There’s a good chance! Do they come in a “value size” bag, box, or bottle to encourage you to buy more than one serving at a time? I can almost guarantee it!
These factors can make it extremely difficult to forego buying these items, but it’s certainly not impossible by any means. This is where going into your shopping trips with a plan (usually including a list and a budget!) can really make the difference.
To answer the logistical details of this question, your snack options are absolutely endless. Staples in our house tend to include the list above: protein shakes vegetables, fruit, cheese sticks, beef jerky, smaller portions of regular meals, smaller portions of “junk foods,” individually packaged “junk foods,” etc. Specifically, we go through a lot of raw carrots, protein powder, individual yogurt cups, cracker snack packs, cheese sticks, and apples. It’s nothing fancy, but it helps us stick to our goals. For myself, I know that I can’t/don’t want to exercise enough willpower to portion out a huge bag of trail mix, or a big container of peanut butter filled pretzels (YUM!), so I simply don’t buy those often or in large quantities.
As a practical takeaway on this topic of snacking, there’s one very actionable step that you can take today. It’s a very simple yet powerful question that you can asked yourself every once in a while as you set, achieve, and change your fitness goals over time:
Do snacks help me or hinder me from achieving my current goals?
This is a pretty broad blanket question, but it makes for a great starting point to then explore your options. Getting to know yourself and your food habits helps tremendously in the way of avoiding unnecessary temptations, as well as navigating those temptations when they do creep in. Rather than relying on extreme, unshakable willpower in the moment, or chancing the defeating powers of guilt and shame afterward, you can instead set yourself up for success ahead of time with this offensive question. Take the offensive route by laying out your intended plan so you don’t have to constantly be on the defense against snacking – which if you recall, is certainly not the enemy here!
Do you have any follow-up questions about snacking in general, or about your specific situation/goals? Leave a comment on this post or send me a message at email@example.com so we can set you up on the path to success! As you walk through the questions above, have faith that you can indeed improve your relationship with food, have fun along the journey, and actually reach your goals. They aren’t as far away as they might seem!