Snacking With Intention
By Jamie Santa Cruz
Vol. 25 No. 1 P. 26
Strategies to Help Clients Take a Mindful Eating Approach
The number of people who snack throughout the day in between meals is on the rise. One recent report found that the average American went from enjoying 505 snacking occasions per year in 2015 to 530 per year in 2020.1 Grazing in between meals can be advantageous. It can boost energy levels during long stretches between meals, and some evidence suggests it can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, improving heart health.2-4 Research shows snacking can boost overall diet quality if the snacks are nutritious.5,6
The downside, however, is that snacking usually is a less intentional eating occasion than a regular meal. When clients snack, they’re often on the go or eating while distracted, which can disconnect them from their internal hunger and satiety cues.
“When people are eating meals, they tend to have more awareness, whereas with snacks, I tend to hear [snacking] much more as a complaint, ‘I’m totally mindlessly snacking,’” says Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, a dietitian in private practice in Fairfax, Virginia. “What people eat for snacks and how much they eat for snacks tend to be much more mindless.”
But that doesn’t mean snacking has to be a thoughtless exercise. It’s possible for clients to learn the habits of mindfulness and incorporate them into snacking habits, potentially with significant health benefits as a result. Here’s how dietitians can help their clients move toward more intentional nibbling.
Determinants of Snacking
To begin with mindfulness and snacking, it helps to understand what factors affect people’s snack choices—and even their motivation for eating a snack in the first place.
One obvious factor that prompts snacking is hunger, yet many people snack when they’re not hungry. This is significant because people who snack due to hunger tend to eat comparatively nutritious snacks, whereas people who snack in the absence of hunger are inclined to eat more energy-dense snacks, which may, in turn, promote weight gain and lower overall diet quality.7
Factors besides hunger that can influence snacking include the following:
• Emotions and psychological stress. Emotional eaters consume higher amounts of energy-dense snacks, especially snacks high in fat and sugar, than those who don’t eat emotionally.8
• Genes. Genetic variations affect a person’s taste receptors and influence their snack preferences.9
• Social messaging and modeling behaviors from family. People who are exposed to social messages that encourage limiting junk food intake consume significantly fewer high-calorie snacks.10
• Physical environment. People who live in neighborhoods with a high prevalence of convenience stores that are stocked with energy-dense snacks tend to have diets lower in nutrition quality.11
• Package sizing. The average package sizes of snacks have increased in recent decades, which has influenced energy intake.5
• Distraction. Eating while distracted—such as while watching TV—is linked to overconsumption.5
• Presence of variety. An increase in the variety of foods available at a given eating event (such as a family dinner) or in a person’s environment overall has been linked to higher consumption within a given meal and in the individual’s diet.12,13 The abundance of snack options in the modern world may therefore influence snack consumption.5
• Time of day. Snacks eaten in the morning generally have more nutritional value, as people are more likely to reach for fruit or yogurt to jumpstart their day.14 By contrast, people tend to gravitate toward savory snacks such as potato chips and tortilla chips in the afternoon and are likely to reach for sweets in the evening.1,14
Fortunately, mindfulness can help clients become more aware of the various factors impacting them and arrive at a place where they’re snacking by choice and with purpose.
Introduction to Mindfulness: The Key Principles
Asked to define mindful eating, Harris summarizes it this way: “Eating with intention and eating with attention.”
To expand on that short definition: mindful eating generally means paying attention to the act of eating, being aware of the taste and texture of food, and being conscious of the emotional and physical sensations one feels while eating.15 It also involves making conscious food choices, developing an awareness of the body’s physiological hunger and satiety cues, and eating in response to those cues rather than external cues.15
The idea isn’t to be 100% mindful throughout every single bite of a meal, which would be unrealistic. Rather, it’s about bringing a level of awareness to eating overall, according to Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, a dietitian in private practice in Boston. “That includes the sensory experience—so, what does my food taste like, smell like, is it pleasurable or not—but also the experience we’re having in our body and in our brain while we’re eating food.” In other words, “what thoughts are coming up around this food, what emotions am I experiencing right now, how does my body feel right now in terms of hunger and fullness cues.”
Aside from simple awareness, two other essential components of mindfulness are curiosity and nonjudgment, says Narmin Virani, RDN, LDN, a clinical dietitian with Nashville Nutrition Partners. Why is nonjudgment important? When individuals are busy passing judgment, it puts the body and the mind “in a state of stress or stress response,” says Virani, who also serves on the board of directors of the Center for Mindful Eating. When people are in a state of stress or anxiety it’s harder “to connect with our body or pay attention to internal cues.”
Benefits of Mindfulness and a Word of Caution
A basic benefit of mindful eating is that it opens up the opportunity to alter habits that individuals dislike or that are detrimental to their own wellbeing. Most of the time, Harris says, “we’re on autopilot, and we just do what we’ve always done. When we’re mindful, there’s a pause, and we have the opportunity to change our behaviors and do something different.”
When applied to eating habits, this can translate into real health benefits. Studies have shown that mindful eating interventions can do the following:
• Improve glycemic control in people with diabetes. A pilot study comparing a mindful eating intervention with standard diabetes self-management education found that the mindfulness intervention resulted in an average reduction in A1c levels of -0.83% after three months—slightly better than the A1c reduction observed for those receiving standard diabetes self-management education.16,17
• Aid weight management or prompt weight loss. Mindful eating interventions don’t always result in weight loss. However, one review article examined the efficacy of mindful eating interventions for weight management among individuals with overweight and obesity and found that weight loss was reported in eight out of 16 studies. In several of those studies, the change in weight was small, but in several others, it was significantly greater.15 According to the review, even when mindful eating interventions didn’t result in weight loss, they often still helped participants stabilize their weight.15
• Reduce symptoms of binge eating. A range of studies has examined the impact of mindfulness interventions on symptoms of binge eating in normal-weight and overweight adults, and these studies consistently show that mindfulness improves binge eating symptoms.15 Mindful eating also consistently reduces other eating behaviors linked to obesity, including emotional eating and external eating (ie, eating in response to external cues such as food packaging or time of day).15,18
But a word of caution: while the health benefits of mindful eating are evidence-based, experts on mindful eating say it’s important not to practice it with a particular health goal in mind. In particular, don’t approach mindfulness as a way to get clients to eat “good” foods or as a weight-management tool.
“If we’re going into mindful eating trying to use it as a tool to eat less or to choose the ‘right’ foods, it automatically conflicts with that principle of nonjudgment,” says Hartley, who’s also the author of Gentle Nutrition: A Non-Diet Approach to Healthy Eating.
In fact, using mindfulness to achieve specific outcomes, such as weight loss, can set clients back.
“One of the things we are discovering more and more through research is that our body weight is determined by many factors,” Virani says. Diet and exercise play a role, but so do other factors, including stress, sleep, genetics, side effects of medications, and social determinants of health. Unfortunately, mindful eating isn’t associated with these factors. So, if clients have been told that eating mindfully will result in weight loss, it can set them up for much discouragement and self-blame when it doesn’t happen. The key, then, is to focus on how mindfulness can help clients regain intention in their snacking behavior, not how it will help them lose weight.
Guide for Helping Clients Practice Mindfulness in Snacking
BEFORE THE SNACK
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” This adage coined by Benjamin Franklin holds as true for mindful snacking as it may for other areas of life. The following are key steps clients can take to prepare themselves before they start snacking:
• Use a hunger-fullness scale to decide when to snack. If 1 represents painfully hungry and 10 represents painfully full, clients should eat a snack once they’ve fallen into the 3 to 4 range, meaning they’re very hungry or hungry, respectively, Virani says.
• Ask clients to determine what they’re craving. In particular, clients should pay attention to the three T’s: taste, texture, and temperature. For example, do they want something cold and creamy or salty and crunchy? “If you eat the wrong thing, your snack won’t be satisfying and you’ll be left craving something else,” Virani says.
Once clients know the kind of snack they’re craving, they can create a nutritionally balanced snack around that information, Virani says. For example, if a client is craving something salty and crunchy, they might eat a portion of chips but balance it out with some protein in the form of nuts, which will not only add nutrition but also help them feel full longer. In this way, she explains, they can honor both satisfaction and nutrition.
• Reduce distractions. By nature, many individuals eat snacks while they’re on the go, increasing the risk of choosing less healthful snacks and not paying attention to how much or how little they consume. It may be impossible to eliminate all distractions, but if clients can at least decrease the number of distractions, that’s better than nothing, Hartley says.
• Take a pause. Recommend clients take three deep breaths, breathing in slowly before reaching for a snack. “[This] just helps our nervous system regulate, and that can make it easier for us to bring in some mindfulness,” Hartley says. “It’s a really simple practice that most people can do even if they’re eating in front of the TV or eating in front of their desk.”
DURING THE SNACK
• Focus on a few (not all) mindful bites. It’s too overwhelming for most people to practice awareness while eating the entire snack—and it’s unnecessary, Hartley says. Instead, dietitians can encourage clients to take one mindful bite at the beginning of their snack, again in the middle, and once more at the end, Hartley says.
During these mindful bites, clients should consider the sensory experience—what does the snack taste like, what is its texture, what does it smell like? But clients also should observe their emotional and physical experience: How are they feeling emotionally while they’re eating, and how are they feeling in their bodies, especially in terms of hunger cues?
• Suggest clients journal their thoughts and emotions. Practicing mental awareness of the thoughts and emotions they experience while snacking is powerful. Getting clients to put pen to paper can be transformative, Harris says. That’s because writing things down can help clients notice patterns around why they’re snacking. And if they’re not snacking due to hunger, that can be eye-opening.
For example, Harris says, some clients may notice they consistently snack when tired, bored, or stressed, while others may realize they snack out of habit. Once they notice their patterns, they may want to address the underlying issue prompting them to snack vs assuaging the problem with food.
“There’s that possibility of saying, oh, well, maybe I just need more sleep, or maybe I’m in pain so maybe I need to just go to physical therapy, or maybe I really need to deal with that problem with my boss,” Harris says. Often, clients think they have an issue with food. “But after three to four days of nonjudgmental observation, clients usually start seeing, oh, this is why I’m eating. And they can start to address the underlying reason.”
• Recommend clients stop snacking when they reach 7 or 8. As mentioned, a 1 on the hunger-fullness scale represents painfully hungry, whereas 10 represents painfully stuffed. Encourage clients to keep tabs on their hunger cues and stop eating their snack before they start feeling overly full, Virani says.
BEYOND THE SNACK
The advantage of starting with snacking (vs full meals) to learn about mindful eating is that it’s a shorter eating occasion and, therefore, easier to begin the practice, Hartley says. But once clients have learned mindfulness around snack time, they can apply the practice to regular meals and develop an overall pattern of mindfulness around food and eating.
As clients do this, it’s important to help them recognize that mindfulness around food also extends beyond mealtime. “It’s easy to focus on the actual chewing,” Harris says, but “ideally we’re talking about the whole process from shopping to ‘How do you think about hunger cues?’ to ‘Are you feeding yourself in the morning?’ to ‘How hungry are you letting yourself get?’ to ‘Are you nourishing yourself throughout the day?’ to ‘What do you do afterward?’”
Harris recommends dietitians start small by helping clients to focus initially on just one snack. However, RDs should keep the end in mind: Snacking is a small step toward the larger goal of a holistic lifestyle of mindfulness around food.
— Jamie Santa Cruz is a freelance writer based in Parker, Colorado.
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