Editor’s Note: This post was written by our healthy living contributor, Heather Caplan, R.D., a registered dietitian from healthy living destination Spright, which offers simple, helpful everyday eating and fitness guides.
The snack craving is a familiar feeling. Between meals, the annoyingly common fatigue slowly but noticeably starts to cloud any attempt to focus, be productive, or think about anything other than what to eat. The question of hunger, thirst, or boredom searches for an answer to no avail, because really, does it matter? Whatever the reason, the brain says, "Must have food now," and the body is like, "Fine! I surrender!"
Why is it so hard to conquer these afternoon cravings? As with anything diet related, I’ll start my answer with “It depends on the person!”—which is just as unsatisfying as that impulsively bought bag of potato chips. But it’s true. And the list of variables is long, but there are some common threads. Here are a couple of reasons you may experience daily (or at least very frequent) afternoon cravings…
Either no real “meals” have been consumed up to this point in the day and the body is straight-up demanding energy, or meals have been so small* that the body is signaling it cannot go on without something more substantial.
*This is also referred to as “back-loading calories” (planning on a large meal at the end of the day): dieters consume a low-calorie breakfast, another low-calorie meal at lunch (e.g. salad or soup), and by mid-afternoon are simply starved for nutrients and energy. Another way this may occur is with a morning workout, when calories haven’t been adequately replaced by this time in the day; again, the body reaches a point where it feels no choice but to demand some fuel!
Carbohydrates/sugars provide a form of quickly available energy, which can be great, though more often will be what the body is craving (something sweet). But when the diet is imbalanced—too high in carbs, and too low in protein and/or fat—energy levels surge and drop dramatically. The body isn’t always great at communicating when it actually needs (more protein/fat), and instead turns to what it knows will provide energy right away: more carbs.
Back to the energy needs… The body is great at recognizing when its energy is low and needs a boost. Cravings for carbs are a sign that the body is looking for a quick fix. One of the problems causing this is a lack of rest. When we’re sleep deprived, our hormone levels fall out of balance, and it becomes more challenging to detect and/or respond to satiety and appetite cues.
Similar to fatigue, stress levels can cause hormone chaos. Feeling stressed actually sets off a series of things that provide energy to the body, but it can also be draining. Suffice to say the body doesn’t love feeling stressed, and generally has the tolerance of a toddler under chronically stressful situations. When stressed, we turn to comfort foods, have less sensitivity to hunger and satiety cues, and often feel fatigued and moody. The willpower bank is tapped, and it becomes increasingly challenging to summon healthy decision-making skills.
Last, but not least, even in the absence of any of the above, the body knows routine. If an afternoon snack is part of the regular food intake, it begins to recognize when this happens and starts to depend on it. It’s common to see habits dominate actual true hunger.
Almost any afternoon snack craving will fall into one of these buckets. They can be very closely related, too, so cravings may be the result of most or all of the above. The challenging (and sometimes daunting) task of distinguishing hunger from thirst, boredom, stress, fatigue, or some other state often loses to the more “desirable” choice of giving into a craving.
So how can you win?
Well, you’re reading this, and that's step one: awareness. Beginning to notice hunger levels is a good start. And now that you know the buckets, you can ask yourself:
Are you snacking because it’s a habit?
On a scale of one to 10, how hungry do you actually feel?
How much sleep are you getting, on average?
What have you had to eat up to this point?
What kinds of food have you eaten today?
Break habits by snacking on new foods, or taking a break from an afternoon snack altogether to see how your hunger levels fare. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Journal or log your afternoon snacks and hunger levels on a scale of one to 10. See which foods you gravitate toward when you're feeling famished versus those you eat when you're barely hungry.
Get more sleep! This is usually easier said than done, but even an extra 30 minutes per night is helpful.
Eat more for breakfast and lunch, and see how your body reacts to more substantial meals at the beginning of the day. Specifically, increase portion sizes of protein and fat, which take longer to digest and are more satisfying.
Switch it up. If you've had mostly carbohydrate-heavy meals (such as cereal, pastries, sandwiches, pasta, or rice), your body may just be burning through energy too quickly. Again, add protein/fat to meals, or snack on protein/fat-dense foods such as beef jerky, cheese, nuts, seeds, and the like.
Which snacks should you eat, if cravings persist?
If you’ve gone through the list of possible hunger activators and decided that yep, you do want/need a snack, go for it! But choose something healthy that won’t send this cycle in motion again in just a few hours. Pair carbohydrates with proteins and/or fats to increase the satiety factor and fill any gaps, and be aware of healthy portion sizes. Try to go for whole foods first, but know there are plenty of good options for snack bars that you can stock up on as needed. Try to avoid giving into the craving for something comforting, or purely junk; it’ll set you two steps back, and you’ll go through this process all over again the next day.
Arm yourself with a few essentials below to help curb those cravings.
What time does hunger habitually strike for you? Tell us in the comments.
Sloane Stationery "To Do or Not To Do" Journal ($52)