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Healthy snacking during lockdown

Head of Behavioural Insights at Bupa UK
04 May 2020

Do you find that the more time you spend at home right now, the more trips you make to the kitchen in search of tasty treats? You might not be meeting friends for coffee and cake, or surrounded by office goodies, but staying indoors can make it difficult to resist snacking. It’s normal to turn to food as a source of comfort or distraction at the moment. But snacking more than usual – coupled with doing less exercise – could lead to weight gain, which can be harmful to your health.

Thinking about your habits and behaviours around food and learning to recognise your triggers can help you to make healthier choices. Here I’ll share some simple tools and techniques from behavioural science to help you snack well at home.


Think about why you’re snacking

There are lots of different reasons you might be snacking or grazing more around the house now. So, becoming aware of what’s triggering your eating is a good place to start when it comes to changing your habits and behaviours. Some reasons might include the following.

Stress

If you’re feeling stressed, it can often be a trigger for overeating. In the short term, your hunger levels are suppressed while your body works out how to reduce the stress you’re feeling. But if you’re stressed over a long period, your body will begin to produce hormones that increase your appetite. Studies have shown that you’re more likely to reach for sugary treats when you’re stressed because they provide comfort.

Boredom

Research has found that the discomfort you feel when you’re bored can drive you to seek out unhealthy snacks in between meals. What’s more, eating activates the reward and pleasure centres in your brain. This leads you to reach for treats as a pick-me-up, even when you’re not actually hungry.

Tiredness

If you’re having trouble sleeping at the moment, feeling tired can lead to snacking more and choosing unhealthy foods. For example, one study looked at the eating behaviours of shift workers. It found that when their sleep was severely interrupted, they were more likely to reach for high-fat and sugary snacks during the day.

Feeling sad or lonely

If you’re feeling sad or lonely during these uncertain times, you might not feel like cooking and turn to snacks, convenience foods or takeaways instead. These foods often lack the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. But eating a healthy, balanced meal can help to improve your mood, reduce irritability and increase positive emotions.

Busyness

While some people may be looking for ways to stay entertained during lockdown, others may be busier than ever. If you’re a key worker, are working long hours from home, looking after children or homeschooling, cooking may be low down on your list of priorities right now. But skipping a meal when you’re pushed for time can cause your blood sugar and energy levels to drop. As a result, you might find yourself grabbing snacks for a quick fix or grazing throughout the day instead. One way to combat this is by eating a healthy breakfast. One study showed that people who regularly ate breakfast, were less likely to overeat throughout the rest of the day. They also slept better, had a better mood and felt more alert.

Habit

Habits are the things you do automatically without realising it. They’re usually trigged by a certain context or situation. The more regularly you do these things, the more your brain learns to do them ‘habitually’ without too much thought. Before long, your behaviour becomes triggered by cues in your environment, rather than because you actually need to do something. For example, reaching for a biscuit when the clock strikes 11am, or pouring a glass of wine when you log off from work.

Perhaps you’ve gotten into the habit of having snacks around when you sit down to watch a movie? While it’s perfectly fine to enjoy this once in a while, it doesn’t take long for your brain to form an association between watching and eating. It sees you reach for a snack each time you sit in front of a boxset. Watching television whilst eating can distract you from the amount you’re eating and tempt you to indulge in bigger portion sizes and more calorie dense foods.

Once you’re aware of what’s causing you to eat more, try the ideas below to help change your behaviours and habits.

Create an action plan

Having a plan of action ready for when you feel tempted to graze and snack on unhealthy foods can be the key to success. A great way to do this is by making an ‘if/then’ plan. The purpose of an ‘if/then’ plan is to identify what triggers you to eat unhealthy foods and to plan ahead for what you will do when it happens. For example:

  • ‘if I feel myself getting stressed during the day, then I will go outside for my daily exercise’
  • ‘if I feel anxious or overwhelmed, then I will take five deep breaths’
  • ‘if I’m feeling lonely, then I’ll videocall a friend for a chat’

Why not create an ‘if-then’ plan to help you reconnect with something you love doing or to discover something new? For example, ‘if I’m bored, then I will mix up my normal exercise routine by trying a new workout online’.

Design your environment

Try these tips to make your surroundings work for you.

  • Schedule some time at the weekend to make a meal plan and go shopping for the coming week. Buy only the ingredients for the meals you’ve planned. This will ensure you have a stock of healthy snacks and meals to hand and reduce the temptation to order in takeaway meals.
  • If you do have treats in the house, put them out of easy reach and sight in cupboards – up high on shelves or in a container is ideal. Making it more effort to access them gives your brain chance to weigh up whether you really want them.
  • Keep a bottle of water close by and sip throughout the day. Thirst can masquerade as hunger, prompting you to reach for snacks when your body doesn’t really need them.

Adopt a healthy mealtime routine

Create new, healthy habits and behaviours around mealtimes by doing the following.

  • Keep to a regular mealtime routine to ensure you don’t get over hungry between meals or overdo your portion sizes.
  • Avoid multitasking when food is around. Switch off distractions such as the TV and your phone, and take a moment to pause and enjoy the textures and flavours. You’ll not only be more aware of what you’re eating but also whether you feel full after eating.
  • Make mealtimes an event and something to look forward to. Take the time to try out a new recipe or even a new cuisine. If you live with others, why not prepare the meal together or if you live alone, try hosting a ‘virtual’ mealtime to connect and enjoy eating with others.

Choose your snacks wisely

  • Try keeping a list of small jobs, each taking a maximum of five minutes to do. Every time you find yourself searching for a snack out of boredom, choose a job to tackle instead.
  • If you do snack, try and make it healthy (e.g. chopped raw vegetables with a low-fat dip, air-popped popcorn, fresh fruit or a small handful of unsalted nuts).
  • Keep a plate of healthy snacks ready prepared in your kitchen or fridge so they’re just as easy to grab as a bag of crisps or biscuit.

Practise self-compassion

Finally, it’s easy to put unnecessary pressure on yourself to use this time to achieve all the things you feel you didn’t have time for before. For some of us, we may choose to be very productive, to learn a new skill or hobby. For others, it will be about taking the time to relax. Both of these are ok. Go easy on yourself – these are difficult times for everyone and now is not the time to be critical of yourself. It’s perfectly normal to find one day ok and the next a little harder to deal with. Keep a list of treat activities like relaxing with a book or taking a hot bath, that you can enjoy at the end of a tough day. If you have a bad day, try not to worry – pick yourself up and start again tomorrow.

Caroline Wood
Head of Behavioural Insights at Bupa UK

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