It feels like there’s nothing to do but eat. Most of us learned quickly that whatever snacks we bought to hold ourselves over through quarantine can only last a few days. Often, the eating is just thoughtless: We’re near our kitchens all the time now, and there’s nothing stopping us from picking through everything edible we own. Maybe we have kids in the house who demand junk food; maybe we buy boxes of Cheez-Its for ourselves against our better judgment. Food is a comfort, one we’re subconsciously drawn to during challenging times.
Mindless snacking isn’t a great habit, but it’s not our fault — it’s just the way our brains are wired. Yet a little bit of knowledge and a few hacks can trick that wiring to work in our favor.
According to nutrition researcher and processed food addiction expert Joan Ifland, the way our brains developed millions of years ago is responsible for our compulsion to snack. “Visual signaling drives a lot of eating,” she says. “When the primitive brain, which runs a lot of food behavior, sees something edible it says, ‘Eat it. If you don’t eat it, some other animal is going to come along and eat it.’ The competitive urge for food kicks in. This is in a very different part of the brain from the rational brain. The frontal lobe is in the front, the primitive brain is in the back. They don’t necessarily communicate.”
A big part of managing that compulsion to snack, then, is to simply keep snacks out of our sight. “Being aware of visual triggers as to what’s available in the house has a huge impact,” Ifland says. “So, if you’re going to have processed foods in the house, I often tell people to lock them in the trunk of their car. If there’s something in the house that you don’t want to eat, put it in a locked container. Everyone has a lockable trunk in their car, so that’s easy.”
By making it more of a chore to get to the processed foods we have, we’re less likely to reach for them. Still, this might not necessarily satisfy our mental urge to eat. Fortunately, Ifland says we can trick our brain to halt this, as well. To do so, we have to think about smell.
“The nose is the only place in the entire human body where you have neurons exposed to the air,” she explains. “So smell has the greatest impact on the brain of anything. Here’s the trick: almost everyone has a crockpot or slow cooker, and it’s really easy to fill them up. You can just dump whatever ingredients you have in — a pound of ground beef, a bag of carrots, some garlic powder, whatever. Put the lid on, set it for eight hours and walk away.” In doing so, we fill our homes with the scent of food without much effort. “You will naturally gravitate toward wanting to eat that [as opposed to the other snacks in the house] because your primitive brain knows it’s available,” she continues. “You’re just naturally drawn to it — in other words, the fight isn’t there.”
Basically, your subconscious brain knows it will be eating at some point, so the competitive instinct for food is quieted. Without this instinct, you’re less likely to think about food or gravitate toward snacking.
“Everyone has this fight in their brain,” says Ifland. “You impulsively eat, and then you feel this remorse. [People] start blaming themselves and hating themselves, and it’s just because processed foods have this craving allure. Processed foods are deliberately designed to be highly crave-able, setting off urges in the brain. It’s uncomfortable. People don’t know that they can make that go away. If you’ve got processed foods all over the house, but if you have the smell of healthy food through the house, then you’ve activated the natural healthy feeding pathways in the brain.”
Of course, Ifland says, the best way to prevent snacking is to simply keep fewer snacks at home. More than that, though, she suggests eating more during scheduled meals. “Getting hungry well before mealtime is a sign that you haven’t eaten enough in the previous meal. Eat full portions at mealtime, and you won’t be as tempted to snack,” she says.
Both reducing the snacks in the house and eating fuller meals can be particularly challenging for people with children, but according to Ifland, it’s a worthwhile fight. “Processed foods are very much like cigarettes in the diseases they create,” she says. “We know today that food-related diseases have overtaken smoking as the leading cause of preventable death. One of the things parents may not know is that these processed foods given to children can cause irritability, anxiety, depression, fatigue, attention issues and more because of the cravings. When the brain is focused on cravings, there’s literally not enough blood flow entering the frontal lobe, which dictates attention, decision-making, emotional processing, etc.”
It’s better, then, to kick the processed food habit now, while kids are home from school. “My tip here is, in the morning, make a big bowl of cut-up fruit,” she says. “Leave it out for the kids to access. There’s a visual cue there, and the parents are able to suggest the kids eat the fruit before turning to processed foods.” Even if you don’t have children, setting yourself up with a healthier snack option in the morning that lasts through the day might be a useful tactic for compulsive snackers.
Food is one of our few indulgences these days, and it’s okay to lean into that in moderation. But as many people are thinking about their overall well-being and immune health right now, it’s important to consider how our coping methods will impact us long term. It’s not necessarily that you have to eat less, either. Think about it this way: A pork roast lovingly simmered with onions, potatoes, garlic and herbs over several hours will probably taste way better than a bag of Doritos, anyway.