Top 9 ways to regain control over your snacking habits

With endless COVID-19 updates clogging your feeds and the threat of job loss — not to mention being at home 24/7 — a new study shows you may be inhaling food or booze to cope with the stress.

As feelings of fear and existential stress mount alongside coronavirus cases — and we’re being told to live our lives further apart to stem the spread of the virus — you may be finding it harder to resist the junk food or booze.

That hit of calories or alcohol releases mood-boosting, soothing chemicals in your brain, making you feel better… for a bit. Until it doesn’t, and then you go hunting for more.

An experiment conducted by UNSW Sydney psychologists shows this response, while not helpful for your health, is completely natural. They discovered that stress, exhaustion and distraction all make it tougher to ignore cues in the environment — cues like ads for alcohol, fast-food logos, your Easter egg stash — that signal something rewarding.

“We know people are trying very hard to control their attention and not give into temptation,” says study author Dr Poppy Watson. “And what we’ve found is that when you’re distracted by other things in your life, or if you’re tired or stressed, the ability to control your attention is depleted.”

Feel like snack attacks should be the least of your worries right now? Don’t dismiss the importance of controlling them. In fact, immunologists say that people who are fitter and healthier tend to fight viral infections more effectively.

Every part of your body — including your immune system, your body’s invisible army — works better when protected from external threats and is strengthened by healthy-living strategies, according to Harvard Medical School experts. This includes controlling your stress levels, not smoking, getting enough sleep, drinking in moderation and maintaining a healthy weight.

Although in the current circumstances a treat every now and then is something to look forward to — now’s not the time to give in and binge.

Wired for pleasure

Your brain is wired for pleasure. Eating ice cream, having sex, hugging a friend, winning a game — such rewards all cause parts of your brain to light up in rapture and trigger the release of dopamine, the happy chemical.

Alcohol and nicotine, meanwhile, stimulate your brain’s calming neurotransmitter, GABA, which reduces anxiety by having a numbing effect. According to Dr Watson, cues or things you associate with a reward can also become rewarding unto themselves.

“Take the golden M for McDonald’s, for example,” she says. “It’s just a yellow M, it’s really not that exciting. But its pairing with rewarding junk food gives it much more significance and you start to notice it more, and that can trigger cravings and maybe even compulsive reward-seeking behaviour.”

In other words, someone who’s compelled to seek pleasure needs to keep playing a computer game, constantly check emails or reach again and again for calorific food.

Dr Watson studies both the mechanisms underlying such behaviours and how good people are at resisting temptation. Before her team’s research last year, it wasn’t known whether people were able to control their urges or not.

As it turns out, you can, thanks to your executive function — those cognitive processes that allow you to pay attention, organise your life, focus, keep track of what you’re doing and regulate your emotions.

Some people naturally have better control than others, Dr Watson says, but control gets harder for everyone if your brain’s overloaded.

“You have a set of control resources that are guiding you and helping you suppress these unwanted signals of reward. But when those resources are taxed, these [signals] become more and more difficult to ignore.”

The other tempters

It’s not just an overloaded brain driving you to the fridge. Emotions, gut health and underlying nutritional deficiencies could also be to blame. “Food can be a good source of short-term emotion regulation,” explains Australian Catholic University Professor Joseph Ciarrochi. “It’s comforting, it’s a way of expressing love to somebody, of feeling connected… When you’re feeling out of control, eating is the one thing you can control. For a lot of people, eating can be a way of trying to manage anxiety, fear, anger and sadness.”

On the physiological side, clinical nutritionist Maria Shaflender says protein deficiency drives many people’s cravings. “Most of the time in clinic, the issue is that people are short in their key neurotransmitters,” Shaflender explains. “When people lack serotonin and dopamine, they’ll try to find external substances to fill the gap. Carbs and simple sugars are really good at increasing serotonin really quickly… for a short time, until it drops down, and then you need to eat them again.”

Protein provides the building blocks for serotonin and dopamine, which is an issue when people don’t eat enough protein or don’t absorb it well due to poor gut health. “It’s physically impossible if you’re protein-deficient to manufacture these neurotransmitters,” Shaflender says. “Deficiencies in B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and other nutrients are also common, and these facilitate protein uptake.”

You’re also more likely to experience cravings the week before your period, when your hormones are producing less serotonin, if your gut contains more bad bacteria than good, and when you haven’t been sleeping well, Shaflender explains. “Many studies show that when people don’t get adequate-quality and -quantity of sleep, they’ll have 40-50 per cent more carb cravings the next day.”

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How to lower your ‘snackcident’ rate

So how can you stop the stress and overwhelm of living through a pandemic from sabotaging your health? Can you simply train your brain to resist temptation? According to Dr Watson, it’s not that straightforward.

While some studies have shown executive-control training can strengthen people’s longer-term decision-making and make them better able to resist chocolate or alcohol, many others have had limited success, she says.

Retraining your automatic bottom-up processes — those parts of your brain fuelled by your senses — holds more promise. This works on dampening your urge to reach for temptation, so your executive control has the chance to step in.

Attentional-bias retraining is one such intervention. Attentional bias is when a person show excessive attention towards a particular ‘addiction/bias’, such as snacking or drinking, for example. So this intervention involves retraining yourself to reduce your attention towards your ‘weakness/bias’ cues.

It’s been used in a couple of high-quality trials around alcohol addiction, such as one published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology where patients were asked to do a simple computer task where they looked away from alcohol images towards soft-drink images. “If they could do that for 20 minutes for six sessions, alongside treatment as usual, they had much reduced rates of relapse a year later,” Dr Watson explains. “The rate went down from 50 per cent, the current relapse rate for alcoholics refusing treatment, to about 35 per cent.”

More research is being done in this space, but until then, you can be your own anti-stress, anti-snack hero with these strategies…

1. Re-engineer your environment to encourage healthy decisions

According to Prof Ciarrochi, research shows that if a tempting item is easily accessible, you’ll consume more of it. If you have a thing for M&M’s, he explains, and the packet is open and within reach, then you’ll eat more than if the packet is in a hard-to-reach place and still closed. Simple.

2. Get clear on why you want to be healthy — and remind yourself of the value of health

“In these times, you want to keep your immune function up, you want to be healthy, feel good about yourself and in your body, and have energy,” says Prof Ciarrochi. “If you can say this is personally important to me because, for example, I want to play with my kids, I want to be able to run, then it’s more likely to stick and you’ll be more likely to maintain self-discipline.”

3. Separate eating from distraction

If you’re eating and watching the news or you’re on the phone, you’re more likely to eat mindlessly. “You can watch all the news you want, but if you’re eating at the same time, you’re probably going to eat more,” Prof Ciarrochi warns.

4. Don’t pop the Pringles

Not acting on your initial craving is a crucial step in beating cravings, says Dr Watson. “Once you’ve had a little bit of something, it’s very hard to not eat the whole thing or drink the whole bottle. So try to remove things in your environment that trigger the craving, and keep healthier options around.”

5. Embrace mindfulness

Anxiety is normal — it won’t kill you and you can make space for it, says Prof Ciarrochi. Mindfulness can help you accept your emotions as opposed to trying to control them.

“Mindfulness will allow you to make peace with your anxiety,” he explains. “When you say ‘I’m feeling anxious, I don’t like it, but it’s not something I need to run from,’ you’re less likely to turn to destructive strategies like overeating or alcohol to cope. You’re noticing, you’re pausing, you’re not doing that first reaction, and then you’re making a choice.”

6. Become aware of your true needs

When you find yourself reaching for the chips, Shaflender tips: “Pause, take some breaths and ask yourself: ‘What does my body need right now? Am I hungry or am I anxious? What do I actually need?’” If you’re eating because you’re lonely, Prof Ciarrochi adds, you can’t solve that with food, try calling a friend instead as your craving passes.

7. Be prepared

Creating an action plan for what you’ll do when temptation strikes trumps a vague wish for eating healthier, Dr Watson says. “Think, if I feel like eating chocolate, then I’ll have an apple,” she says.

“It’s called an ‘if-then’ plan. It can become habitual, and you’re not going to notice the craving so much if you’ve already acted on your alternative action plan. A lot of studies show that it’s a lot more effective strategy to get get rid of cravings rather than just hoping for the best.”

8. Have a protein-packed breakfast

“If you start your day with carbs,” says Shaflender, “your chance of having cravings is going to be much higher. You should be eating protein, veg and good-quality fats for breakfast.”

9. Remember, it’s OK to indulge sometimes

Research shows that a rigidly controlled diet tends to backfire, says Prof Ciarrochi. “The key is to make [indulging] a choice. Make it deliberate. Say: ‘I’m going to have this piece of cake now, and I know it’s because I’m feeling stressed, but that’s my way of caring for myself.’ And maybe you eat a bit more today, you eat a bit less tomorrow. That’s called flexible dieting.”

Keep calm and carry on

Prof Joseph Ciarrochi shares his top tips to calm your stress and get mindful

“Download an app to help you breathe slowly, not deeply,” he advises. “Slowing down elicits a calming parasympathetic response and allows you to pause and plan.”

Check your attitude at the door. “Don’t treat mindfulness as something that will make anxiety go away,” he says, because you’re just going to get more anxious when it doesn’t prove to be the magic pill.

“Maybe the anxiety will go, maybe it won’t. The point is learning how to have a new relationship with it, where you’re not trying to avoid it, then it’ll probably stay away for longer.”

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.