How to Become a More Mindful Snacker, According to a Psychologist

Snack attack? Slow down and ask yourself a few questions.

Two bags of Tostilocos

Dotdash Meredith / Sabrina Tan

How many times have you had a stressful day and just grabbed the first thing you saw in the kitchen? Or celebrated something by going out to eat? How many times have you been upset and grabbed that pint of ice cream or chocolate bar? How about watching television and before you know it the bag of chips is gone? 

Snacking happens! There is nothing wrong with snacking or even emotional eating, and I am not here to be the food police and tell you not to snack. That said, I want to encourage you to pause, be curious, and ask yourself some questions to have a better idea of what is behind the snacking.  If we’re going to snack, in other words, we should do it for reasons we understand and feel good about it!

Easy Baked Caramel Popcorn

The Spruce / Julia Estrada

3 Questions to Ask Yourself for Mindful Snacking

The next time you find yourself impulsively, or even mindlessly, grabbing a snack. I encourage you to pause and ask yourself the following three questions:

Why  am I doing this?

What’s going on?

What emotion am I feeling? Am I hungry? Am I bored? Did I have a stressful day and find comfort in snacking?

We can even take that a step further and ask ourselves if there is something about the particular snack that is serving a purpose to us, from a behavioral standpoint. Is it the act of “picking” (think about a bowl of chips), or literally enjoying crunching on that granola? 

Once we take time to ask ourselves these questions, we can begin to see whether we’re engaging in something called emotional eating. 

Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies stacked

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is more common than you probably think and simple to understand: It is eating out of an emotion, as opposed to eating out of physiological  hunger (being hungry after not eating for several hours and/or not eating the right foods to fill up and stay satisfied) Emotional eating comes from emotional hunger (eating out of happiness, loneliness, sadness, stress, or even boredom). The trick is to learn how to recognize these two types of hungers. 

How Do I Know If I’m Eating Out of Emotional or Physiological Hunger?

Here are some ways to help you differentiate between emotional hunger and true physiological hunger:  

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly while physiological hunger occurs gradually.
  • When you are eating out of an emotion you most likely crave specific, often comforting foods such as pizza, ice cream, chocolate. And it might feel like that’s the only food that will satisfy you.  When you eat because you are actually hungry, you will eat whatever is available. 
  • When you are eating out of an emotion, urgency matters. You feel like you must eat right this second, while physiological hunger can wait, perhaps until dinner is ready. 
deviled eggs

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

How to Be More Mindful About Emotional Eating

Now that we know how to differentiate between emotional hunger and physiological hunger, what can we do about it? Here are three tips for being more mindful when it comes to emotional eating.

1. Take a Time-Out. If you find yourself in the kitchen opening and closing cabinets or the refrigerator and looking for food, tell yourself to stop. Just as kids become impulsive and may act out when they are emotional,  adults also act out but in different ways, perhaps by grabbing food. 

So, take a mini time-out: Before grabbing food at that moment, pause for a few minutes and ask yourself, “Why am I in the kitchen?" “What is going on?” and "When was the last time I ate?" These questions will help you understand your motivation. If you are able to identify that you are upset, stressed, or bored, then you can ask yourself if eating is really going to solve the problem (and yes, sometimes snacking is what we need at these times, and that is okay because you made the conscious decision.)

2. Think about a distraction and substitute an alternative behavior. Have a handful of distraction techniques or coping mechanisms ready to use before you find yourself absent-mindedly staring in the refrigerator. It is important to have more than one at the ready, as not all distractions might work in the moment. For instance, if you say you will call a friend, they may not be free when you call. Or if your go-to behavior is to take a walk, be prepared for a substitute when the weather is bad. Think about what is realistic for you to do in a number of situations. 

After about 10 minutes of doing something else, you will probably be distracted and no longer be thinking about the food, which would be further evidence that you were not physiologically hungry. On the other hand, if you are still thinking about food after that distraction, then you are probably truly hungry or just want to snack—go for it! 

3. Ask yourself if you really want that snack, or do you need it? We don’t need ice cream, cookies, cakes, but occasionally we really want those things. If you are able to identify that you don’t need this, but you really just want it, then go for it. 

The Bottom Line: Snacking Is a Good Thing—Just Be Mindful! 

The key  to being a more mindful snacker is to take a time-out, pause, and do a self-assessment to understand what is going on and what purpose the snacking is serving at this time. Are you eating to feed your body or perhaps another emotion? Remember that food will NOT necessarily solve your problems, but also snacking is NOT a bad thing. It happens and is necessary at times, but understanding the purpose of it and anticipating how you may think and feel after, is the key to feeling happier in your choices