Have you ever found yourself staring into your fridge, then coming to the realization that you don’t remember what you were even looking for? Often, when I walk past my pantry, something will cue my subconscious to look for a snack, even if I just ate an hour ago. Our brains are very good at grooving habits into our behaviors whenever an action is paired with a reward. Whenever we walk past the kitchen, it’s not far off from the act of walking past a cluster of blueberry bushes out in the wild before we had such conveniences as refrigeration. Of course our brains would be wired to remind us to go back to that patch again and again for sustenance! But when that blueberry patch is 20 feet away from our home offices, how do we keep that impulse from sneaking pounds on around the midline?
Modern snack foods have no prerequisite for hunger for us to enjoy them. The crunchy, sugary, fatty, salty components of packaged and processed foods don’t reward us for their high nutrient content, like, say, a savory plate of grass-fed ribeye and roasted asparagus with garlic butter would. Instead, they hijack our reward system, posing as blueberries and triggering us to eat more even when we’re not hungry. Even blueberry flavored things like cereals and muffins often only have blueberry-like substances composed of corn derivatives, dye, and lies.
I’m not here to tell you which foods qualify as junk and to make you feel bad for finishing that pint of Cherry Garcia last night as you finished your third Office rerun binge. We’ve all been there, right? No? Just me? Nevermind…
But we often can get frustrated with ourselves for not having enough willpower to cork the wine bottle when we know we should, but take heart. Willpower is a great skill to develop to start a new routine but it does not have the sustaining power we like to think it has. Instead, we need to lean on our discipline to lay the groundwork to make future decisions easier. For example, grocery stores are layed out so that ultra-processed foods appear before your eyes at the exact moment that your willpower is at its lowest point. Once you expend your willpower filling the cart with produce, there’s little left when that 33¢ Snickers is staring you in the face and you’ve just spent the last half hour looking at food and not eating any.
Discipline reminds us that we made a list ahead of time. Discipline is a decision we make for ourselves ahead of time so when our willpower is diminished, the decision to splurge on junk has already been made. There’s no thinking required when you pull into the checkout aisle. To say that low willpower is somehow a character flaw is to say that you’re weak if you get the urge to sleep at night. No one expects you to will yourself away from tempting foods; the key is to set yourself up for success ahead of time.
Here are two powerful things you can practice today for a small victory that can pay dividends down the road:
Add Friction. If there is a certain special snack food you can’t live without, don’t keep it in your kitchen or in the same room you might be working in. In an office setting, researchers have found that by simply putting a lid on a jar of candies significantly decreases the amount of sugar consumed by the employees compared to an open jar. Whatever that snack is, try putting it out in a locked vehicle, in an upstairs room, or even under some gym equipment. Perhaps you implement a rule that in order to access the treat, you have to move a weight a few times in order to open the box.
Try this: if there’s an app on your phone you habitually open, move the icon to the edge of the screen, or at least away from where it normally sits. You’ll find that, at least at first, you have one extra thought step in the process of opening the app instead of sliding into that habit groove. That’s exactly what we mean by creating friction between you and potentially bad snack foods. You can apply this technique to any habit you want to shift. It doesn’t mean you have to give up Funyuns forever (though consider it, maybe?), it just means that you need to think before you crunch.
Give Yourself Alternatives. This strategy is the negative of #1. It’s not wrong to want a snack and breaking the habit cycle of walk through kitchen-look for snack-eat snack-repeat, is itself likely not going anywhere since your kitchen is where food happens. So, let yourself go nuts with good options for snacks. Stock your kitchen and fruit bowls with whole foods. A stack of oranges requires an extra step to get to the juicy insides, so if you’re willing to put in a few extra seconds of work to receive your reward, it probably means you’re eating more out of hunger and less out of boredom.
Flavored sparkling water has gotten more and more popular as it satisfies that mysterious desire for carbonation without much of anything added. Sometimes we get slight hunger pangs when really what we need is a glass of water. It might seem pricey to pay $4 for a dozen cans of a trendy beverage, but if it helps keep you from drinking those sugary things that you’re trying to avoid, I say it’s money well spent.
Another good option is to have a good protein power or branch chain amino acid supplement on hand. (I’ve linked to two of my personal favorite brands. Not a sponsor.) We usually associate these powders with bros getten swole, but they can help alleviate those mid afternoon cravings to help us make it to dinner, too. Protein is especially satiating and has a very high “thermic effect” relative to fats and carbs. It takes more energy for your body to process that protein, thus producing more internal heat, than other foods. Just don’t go overboard with how much you use at once. Depending on which one you buy, there may be some funky filler ingredients that can be hard on the stomach.
You may be stuck at home and you may find yourself staring down that box of chocolate-covered almonds while you’re trying to get work done, but make that decision now that Captain Crunch will not make your dietary decisions for you. If you’re going to indulge, indulge bravely and on purpose! If you’re a grazer, give yourself permission to eat as much fruit and carrot sticks as you want.
And if you’re having a hard time adding things to your Netflix queue, might I offer this list of 23 lesser known titles.
Marcus Farris is the Veteran Wellness Coordinator at Mission 22. He’s a Certified Health Coach and Level 1 Crossfit Trainer.