This probably sounds familiar: You stop by your office break room and notice some chips or cookies lying out — leftovers from a catered lunch. You’re not hungry, but you decide to have a bite or two. By the time you’re back at your desk, your stomach is screaming for more.
What’s the deal with that?
Even before you swallow a bite of food, taste receptors in your mouth start “talking” with your brain and stomach — letting them know food is on the way, said Belinda Lennerz, MD, an endocrinologist and nutrition researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital.
That leads to hormone shifts and other metabolic changes that help your digestive system prepare to handle a big influx of food, Lennerz said. (One example: Your insulin levels tick up to keep your blood sugar from climbing too high post-feed.)
All this is good and necessary if you’re taking down a whole meal. These preparations keep your body in a happy state of homeostasis, Lennerz said.
But in that break-room scenario — and in many other snacking situations — your body doesn’t know you only intended to have a bite or two, she said.
Your gut and digestive system react as though a big meal is on the way. The resulting drop in blood sugar can shoot your hunger through the roof, Lennerz said. That can send you running back to the break room to pound those cookies and chips by the fistful.
What can you do about all this? Follow these three snacking rules:
1. Don’t start what you can’t stop.
“When it comes to eating, it’s difficult to stop once you’ve started,” said Robin Tucker, PhD, RD, an assistant professor of human nutrition at Michigan State University.
She reiterates much of what Lennerz describes above, and said the main message here is an obvious one: If you’re not hungry, don’t eat anything.
Keep in mind, it may be especially tough to stop eating salty or sweet treats after just a bite or two, said Kent Berridge, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan.
“A lot of modern packaged foods are made to tap into the brain’s reward pathways,” he explained.
Particularly if a snack combines sweet and salty flavors — a combo that fires up you’re your brain’s “GIVE ME MORE” sectors — you may find it tough to stop after a bite or two, he said.
2. Keep them out of site, out of mind
When it comes to food, your brain has a lifetime’s worth of experience to draw from. And because you know how a food will taste, just seeing or smelling some snacks can “turn on the wanting,” Berridge said.
“Even thinking about food can trigger the kinds of hormonal responses that increase hunger,” Tucker added.
Their advice? Clear your environment of temptations.
At work, you want to keep your office and desk free of snacks or food imagery, Tucker said. If you know the break room may be loaded with goodies, keep away.
The same rules apply at home, she said. Keep snack foods tucked away in cabinets — not out on the counter where a stroll through the kitchen will expose you to them.
3. Reach for the right snacks.
Tucker said there are two kinds of eating: hedonic and homeostatic.
“Homeostatic refers to energy deficits, so you’re eating because your body needs energy,” she explained. “Hedonic eating is eating for pleasure.”
While these two kinds of eating are not mutually exclusive — you can eat both for pleasure and to satisfy your body’s energy needs — most of the situations mentioned above have to do with hedonic eating. That is, you crave food because your senses were exposed to tasty goodies — not because your body needs energy.
On the other hand, there are lots of times when your body really IS running low on energy — like after a big workout, or late in the afternoon when you’ve been grinding at the office and haven’t eaten for hours. In those cases, the right snack can help quell hunger until your next meal, Tucker said.
What should you reach for?
“Proteins and healthy fats,” Lennerz said.
Your body digests both slowly, and neither triggers the kind of hunger-stoking insulin response you get from sugar or refined carbs, she said.
What does that translate to in real-food terms? Snacks like avocado, nuts and full-fat yogurt.
Tucker said fiber-rich carbohydrates — mainly, whole fruits — can also be a good snack. Apple and peanut butter combines a whole fruit with some fat and protein. Hummus and vegetable sticks is another satisfying option, she said.