We can’t deny the pleasure we get from the first bite of a chewy glazed doughnut or the crunch of a perfectly salted potato chip—but that temporary satisfaction has some pretty unpleasant long-term consequences for our bodies. It’s not new information, but we could all use a reminder: Mindlessly snacking on unhealthy overprocessed foods can lead to everything from high cholesterol to extreme weight gain—unfortunately, it’s also difficult to avoid (our empty tub of Ben & Jerry’s is proof). To help us figure out how to snack smartly, we enlisted the help of Patrick Murphy (who’s helped celebs like Jennifer Lawrence and Cameron Diaz get in tip-top shape) to spell out the rules.
Keep flipping to read our fit girl’s guide to snacking!
“We are creatures of habit,” Murphy says. “It’s easy to mindlessly snack on anything while doing [mindless activities like watch TV or check social media].” He cites lack of focus as the main harbinger of bad habits—not least of which includes your food habits.
Your emotions can also be involved: “Mindless snacking can also stem from feelings of unhappiness or stress,” he continues. “Often snacks consist of comfort foods, and an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating can be created.” If you’ve ever reached for your trusty packet of Oreos after a particularly stressful day at work, then you know what he’s talking about (guilty!).
One of the easiest ways to be mindful about your snack habits? Start a food journal. “Many of us have no idea exactly how much we’re eating until we’re confronted with it on paper,” he says. “Fill out a week’s worth (and be completely honest… I mean, every nut and cracker, even if it’s only one), and review your journal for the frequency, quality, and overall relationship with food. Honesty is everything.” Just remember—this exercise is to help you be more aware of any mindless eating you might do, not encourage you to obsess over every little calorie.
He also says to evaluate your other mindless habits (say, binge-watching an entire season of The Real Housewives), which can in turn help keep your mindless snacking in check. “Change evokes change,” he says. “Revamp your behaviors. Stay focused. Eat a healthy dinner, find a novel, or start a project not related to work that will give you a sense of reward and accomplishment.”
Murphy cites three steadfast rules when it comes to snacking smart:
1. Slow it down: “Eat slowly and enjoy your snacks,” Murphy says. “Give your brain and body a chance to send the signal that you are satiated.” Fun fact: It can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to register that you’re full, so give yourself some time before reaching for another handful.
2. Load up on the right things: “Incorporate proteins, healthy fats, and high-fiber carbs into your snack routine,” he suggests. “[These will] absorb slower than snacks with refined carbohydrates, which cause the sugar spikes that make you overeat and search for more energy.”
3. Don’t buy in bulk: Quite simply, doing so will only tempt you to reach for another helping. There’s no risk of slipping up when the temptation isn’t there!
When we asked Murphy about the worst snacks, he started with the obvious (and our ultimate weakness): all things sugary sweet. “Stay away from all ‘added sugar’ products,” he says. “These sugar bombs—anything that contains above 15 grams of sugar—will only encourage more snacking and overeating, which can lead to inflammation and a number of other health concerns.” Keep reading for more snacks you should try to avoid.
Other than sugar, Murphy lists highly refined and overprocessed foods as the worst for you—no surprise there. “They create food addictions, fat gains, inflammation, and mind and body aging,” he says. “They’re usually loaded with chemicals, GMOs, HFCS, artificial flavors and sweeteners, dyes, other synthetics, and a [number] of even more unappetizing ingredients.”
Need some specific examples? Steer clear of conventional flour product snacks, like chips, crackers, [sugary] cereals, muffins, granola bars, and cakes. Murphy also suggests avoiding juice boxes (too many added sugars), packaged deli meat snacks (overly processed), and candy (sigh).
While you take a moment to mourn your midday Oreo break, allow us to introduce you to the healthier side of snacking. Murphy says to think about going to the source: “For example, eat an apple—don’t drink apple juice. Eat quinoa—don’t eat quinoa chips.” He says the healthiest snacks often have the shortest shelf life because they don’t contain preservatives. “A variety of fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds are the best!”
Of course, that’s not saying you have to deprive yourself of everything enjoyable until the end of time—everything in moderation, after all. We’ll be the last ones to deny you the pleasure that comes from the first, perfect bite of a chocolate bar (preferably dark). The point is to keep this little pleasure as the exception, not the rule. Once you start being more aware of your snacking habits, you’ll be able to discipline yourself and choose options that are better for your body—Real Housewives marathon or not.