Two things experts can agree on: It’s easy to get caught in a constant-noshing mode that sabotages weight loss or maintenance, and keeping a food journal is the best way to regain control.
So we asked one woman who struggles with snacking to keep a diary detailing her bites, then had nutritionists and weight-loss pros tell us where they’re going wrong—and right.
Emily Johnson, 25
As an account executive for several food clients at a Los Angeles PR firm, Emily can’t escape the lure of the well-stocked kitchen and snack table, which she hits up at least three times a day, especially when under pressure. She has a particular weakness for cheese and salty bites like chips, often using them as a makeshift meal when she’s short on time. Business trips make it even harder to stick to a routine. Her all-day nibbling has nudged the scale up seven pounds over two months. Emily tracked her stress levels, schedule, and diet for one week.
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The Problem: Stress
“New-business meetings every Thursday—including my first with our company’s CEO—and time-sensitive items on my to-do list send me straight to the snack table. When stress wears me out, I keep my stamina up with espresso. I only have time to work out on weekends, but then, surprisingly, I don’t get many cravings. During the week I at least make an effort to get up every hour and walk around so I’m not slumped over a desk all day.”
The Expert Take:
The burst you get from espresso is often panicky, irritated energy that can spur you to munch. Go for gentler sources of caffeine like matcha or green tea; you’ll get a steadier supply, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N. dietitian in Chicago; author of The Superfood Swap. And to fight cravings, research shows that exercise may curb hunger by lowering levels of ghrelin (the appetite-stimulating hormone) and raising levels of peptide YY (the satiety hormone), says Blatner. (Hit the reset button—and burn fat like crazy with The Body Clock Diet!)
Finally, walking around every hour is definitely a good call. A recent study found that a five-minute activity break every hour was more effective than a 30-minute morning walk in reducing cravings, says Deborah Tate, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and health behavior, University of North Carolina.
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The Problem: Travel
“I fly a lot on business—this week to Richmond, Virginia. I scramble to get everything together, and then scarf down airport food (a greasy breakfast sandwich) and snack mix on the flight. I had a longish layover in Newark, which was an excuse for having cheese and wine. After the trip, jet lag hit me hard.”
The Expert Take:
Traveling an snacks go hand in hand, but go online to your airline’s website to scope out the restaurants and make a nutritious game plan, so you won’t grab the first thing you see, says Caroline Apovian, M.D., director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center and professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
And while you’re at it, plan to only drink alcohol with a meal, instead of a snack, says Apovian. Food will slow the rate of alcohol absorption and reduce its effects—making it easier to turn down those free pretzels on the plane.
As for that wonky sleep schedule: Lack of sleep jacks up your appetite, but dehydration is another culprit. Traveling depletes your fluid reserves, and you may mistake thirst for hunger. Even if you’re not getting enough sleep, make sure you’re taking in extra fluids, she says.
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The Problem: Eating Regular Meals
“Between travel and work deadlines this week, I rarely had three regular meals a day. Breakfast is a piece of fruit and coffee, and lunch is a small salad. Often, meetings after work end up pushing dinner—my biggest meal of the day—to 8 p.m. or later. And sometimes when I snack a lot during the day, I’ll skip lunch or dinner on purpose to avoid a calorie overload.”
The Expert Take:
It’s smart to eat breakfast, but just having fruit falls short, says Blatner. Every meal and snack should include protein because it’s very satiating. And that full feeling is especially important in the morning, when you need energy and focus, says Blatner.
Plus, when you skimp on calories, you’re going to look for snacks later (hence your all day snack attack). More robust and balanced lunches will help avoid temptations at work, she says.
As for your dinner, taht should actually be your smallest meal, especially after 6:30 p.m., says Apovian. A long day saps your resolve to eat healthy, so prep batches of veggies and proteins ahead for a light supper on busy nights, she says.
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Grazing doesn’t have to be an unhealthy habit, but if Emily wants to continue eating small portions throughout the day, she has to swap empty-calorie snacks for smarter mini-meals filled with fiber, fat, and protein. Planning and prepping her menu for the week will help her avoid skipping meals or making spontaneous trips to the office kitchen. She should pack nutrient-dense snacks like peanut butter, whole-wheat crackers, or kale chips. One more key move: finding nonfood coping mechanisms for stress, like getting fresh air or decompressing with funny videos, to help offset anxious munching.
For more tips on weight loss, check out the March 2017 issue of Women’s Health on newsstands now.