Why do we snack

The psychology of snacking

Next time you reach for food in between meals, ask yourself why you’re doing it. You might genuinely be hungry or your body might be lacking in certain nutrients, but you could also be motivated by stress, unhappiness, anger, boredom or a desire to celebrate or reward yourself.

Are you really hungry?

It’s important to differentiate between hunger and food cravings. Hunger is the body’s way of making sure it gets enough energy from nutrients in food. When the stomach is empty, it releases the hormone ghrelin, which communicates with the brain’s command centre, the hypothalamus, creating the feeling of hunger so we know when to eat. Satiation is signalled by the release of the hormones leptin, by fat cells, and insulin, by the pancreas, in response to increased blood sugar.

A craving, on the other hand, is an overwhelming desire for certain foods despite our body having little or no nutritional need for them. The main brain chemical involved in cravings is dopamine, which is linked to learning and concentration. When we see or experience something new, dopamine is released in the brain, which, along with other brain chemicals called opioids, produces feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. So the brain associates certain activities with pleasure and prompts us to do them over and over again.

Junk food cravings date back to prehistoric times when the brain’s opioids and dopamine saw high-calorie food as a survival mechanism. We are wired to enjoy fatty and sugary foods and our brains tell us to seek them out. Our chemical responses remain the same today – hence we experience cravings for so-called comfort foods.

Stress and snacking

Stress is a key trigger of cravings for fat- and sugar-laden foods. Stress leads our bodies to produce the hormone cortisol – the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. Cortisol increases sugar in the blood to give us access to energy. It also suppresses the immune system and helps in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism. And it blocks the release of leptin and insulin, increasing hunger. Needless to say, then, when we’re stressed, we’re drawn to high-energy foods. If we had to fight or flee, we’d be burning the calories, but these days we’re sitting at our desks, giving our bodies far more fuel than they’re going to use, leading to weight gain and, if left unchecked, obesity.

Comfort food?

We also snack to soothe and comfort ourselves or to give ourselves a reward or a pick-me-up if we’re feeling low or bored. This may be continuing a pattern begun in childhood where we were given sweets as a reward, to show affection, to keep us quiet or cheer us up. As adults, we continue to use food to help take our mind off our emotions and we snack to try to diminish anxiety, fear, sadness and other unpleasant feelings. Snacking is also a great excuse to procrastinate. We tell ourselves will get on with our work after we’ve had this biscuit or that packet of crisps.

It’s not surprising we’re drawn to foods like cake and chocolate – they taste good and delight our senses. Women are particularly prone to cravings of sweet and fatty foods while men crave more savoury items, studies show, although experts don’t yet know why. Women are also more likely to eat in response to stress.

The right nutrients can cut cravings

Of course, we might be drawn to snack on certain foods because our body is actually missing those nutrients – for example, we could be low on iron or Omega 3 fats. But if this were the case, we’d be craving meat or fish rather than chips or ice cream. More often than not, we’re looking to change the way we feel through food.

Eating healthy, nutritious meals at regular times and keeping snacks high in protein like small bags of nuts to hand will help beat the craving for fatty or sugary bites. And learning to stop yourself before you eat and ask yourself what’s really going on – you may be feeling tired, lonely, sad, stressed – can help beat the cravings. You’ll probably find the feelings will pass more quickly than if you try to blot them out with snacks.