A brief guide to healthy snacking

I came across this story today which refers to a study conducted by psychologist Brian Wansink and his team at Cornell University in the US. Professor Wansink is the author of the book ‘Mindless Eating’, and has a special interest in the often-unconscious factors that determine what and how much we eat. If you haven’t read his book, I thoroughly recommend it.

In this experiment, individuals were allowed to eat Pringles-type potato chips from a tube. Some individuals just ate regular chips. However, in other groups, the regular chips were interspersed with chips that had been coloured red. The study subjects did not know why some chips had been coloured red. Those eating these ‘segmented’ chips ate about half as many as those eating regular chips. Here are three mechanisms through which the authors suggests the inclusion of red chips might cause people to eat less:

they call attention to and encourage better monitoring of eating
they suggest smaller consumption (portion size) norms
they break automated eating sequences by introducing a pause

All of this makes sense, but what practical tactics exist for ensuring snacking does not turn into excessive eating or gorging? I know from my own experience and frommany experiences with clients that once we start, it can be difficult to stop eating snack foods until they are all gone (however big the portion). Here’s a brief guide to dealing with mindless eating isues.

Out of sight…

Back in September 2010 I wrote a blog post about combating ‘mindless eating’ by ensuring that snack foods are not kept visible. Constant visual reminders about foods will tend to cause us to eat more of them, pure and simple. So, snack foods (and foods in general) should be stored out of sight.

Don’t buy it

If it’s not there, you can’t eat it. So, you might want to consider making your home (and perhaps your workspace) devoid of rubbishy snacks.

Go nuts

For people who aren’t allergic, I think nuts make a very good snack. Some raw nuts, for example, represent a decent and usually satisfying snack. They can help quell appetite in the late afternoon and early evening and make eating healthily in the evening far easier than if hunger is left to run riot.

Some people have the opinion that raw nuts are a bit boring and that they’d rather eat salted, dry roast, hickory-smoked or some other more flavoursome type of nut. I am not into the idea of people going through their lives perpetually denying themselves food pleasures, but the more we like a food and the more ‘rewarding’ it is, the more we tend to eat of it. It’s partly because raw nuts are a bit unexciting that they make an ideal snack (not many people will knock themselves out over a fistful of raw almonds).

A bit at a time

Sitting in front of the TV with a bag of nuts or chips or whatever in your hand is just asking for trouble. As Brian Wansink’s latest study shows, some method of interrupting our ‘grazing’ seems to reduce the amount we tend to eat. One way of employing this practically is to, say, take a handful of nuts from a packet, and to put the packet back in the cupboard, drawer, purse or briefcase before eating them. If more nuts are needed, you can always go back. But it makes sense to avoid having an unopened packet (particularly a large one) in front of you for extended periods of time.

8 Responses to A brief guide to healthy snacking

  1. mezzo 31 May 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Some of it I would put down to survival instinct – i.e. the urge to eat something that is available, visible, alluring, what not. Think Stone Age: food was not plentiful and in order to survive it was a good idea to eat anything edible that came your way because you didn’t know when the next thing would be available. Today everything is available in plenty around the clock. That is where reason must come in.

    Second thing: Practically nobody overeats on steaks and broccoli. Snack foods have been DESIGNED to make you overeat – flavours, flavour enhancers, crunch, sweetness, the lot. Mindless eating is encouraged – so one must use one’s MIND to counteract this.

  2. Diane Smith 1 June 2012 at 9:23 am #

    I saw on a TV programme once that Pringles were designed in a lab by chemists whose aim was to make them addictive and so palatable that people would just keep on eating them once they started. Hence ‘once you pop, you just can’t stop’. I never bought them ever again after seeing this. I guess many of the snack products on supermarket shelves were designed like this – to maximise the food company’s profits but at the expensive of our health and waistlines!

  3. Debbie Polain 1 June 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    Have you seen the C4 programme on “Secret Eating” they looked at the quantity of snacks consumed when they are in a clear or opaque container and also whether they were to hand or put out of reach – interesting!

  4. Wyn Hurst 4 June 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    Also aren’t we hard-wired to eat as many different coloured foods as we can to get all the different nutrients we need? so having the red snacks interspersed with the normal pringles perhaps made the snackers feel they didn’t have to eat so many to get the benefit.

  5. jake3_14 5 June 2012 at 12:06 am #

    I don’t think nuts are a good choice for snacks for two reasons: protease inhibitor enzymes and high phytic acid content. The former prevents you from digesting any protein in the nut (or any other protein eaten around the same time as the nut). You can soak nuts overnight to deactivate these enzymes, but who likes to eat waterlogged almonds and cashews? Even soaking, though, won’t remove the phytic acid, which binds to important water-soluble minerals, like magnesium and zinc. This binding happens only through physical contact, so you can minimize its effects by eating nuts long after or before other foods. The only valuable macronutrient raw nuts have that you can use is fat, and most nuts (almonds excepted) are pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.

    Unless you can restrict yourself to a palmful (22 nuts/oz) of almonds just to take up space in your stomach for a few hours, you’re better off finding other foods to snack on, like homemade pemmican.

  6. Brad 5 June 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    “If it’s not there, you can’t eat it. So, you might want to consider making your home (and perhaps your workspace) devoid of rubbishy snacks”.

    Agreed. I only stock my house with quality foods. My snacks are fruits, corn on the cob, grilled potatoes….and a little alcohol 😉

  7. jake3_14 8 June 2012 at 3:00 am #


    Corn is a grain, not a vegetable, and many people don’t tolerate it well. It, along with modern wheat, can damage the tight junctions between intestinal villi, causing “leaky gut.” can Most people should avoid grains, and especially corn and wheat.

    White potatoes are very high in carbohydrates and trigger a massive insulin response, with all the attendant problems. People attempting to control their insulin should avoid them. Once one has healed one’s gut, only sweet potatoes (any variety), in 100g/meal amounts, can come back on the menu.

  8. mamaprophet 8 June 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Jake, I think Brad was just kidding:))))

Leave a Reply