Are Your Snacking Habits a Lack of Self-Control, Or Something Else?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

Habit Strength = Action Frequency x Level of Automation

So here’s a scenario to consider:

One of your goals is to eat healthily for 12 weeks. That means no junk food of any sort.

And you’ve been doing pretty well for the past 8 weeks.

But someone puts a beautiful bowl of crisps right in front of you and you’ve always loved crisps! You pride yourself in having really good self-control but your hand is about to reach for a big handful of those delicious treats.

Okay, so let’s pause that scene for a moment.

What’s more likely to stop your hand from delving into the crisps and ruining your record?

a. Exerting your self-control and resisting temptation right on the spot? OR

b. The strength of the new habit you’ve been setting up, which somehow weakened your excitement about crisps?

Let’s give it another hoot for the strength of habits. The answer is b.

As a matter of fact, it is hugely about your habit strength. (Goodness, of all the things we could measure, did you ever think one could be called ‘habit strength’?)

Just how good is your habit strength when up against a favorite junk food snack?

You’re about to find out!

The self-control spectrum

When you think of self-control, whether it is pertaining to yourself or a client, there’s a fair chance that you associate that word with success, or a positive outcome. Do you agree?

Usually these outcomes are considered to be the result of the ability to refuse desires for immediate gratification – sort of like resisting that bowl of crisps in front of you. If the end result of that situation is that you resisted the crisps, then it is deemed that you have good self-control.

We normally associate good self-control with an effortful process that requires conscious attention or deliberation. As a result, we believe that those who put in the mental effort to resist the snacking action have more self-control.

But here’s the twist: research suggests that self-control around snacking can also be effortless.

The researchers call it ‘effortless inhibition’.

Let’s see how that’s even possible next.

Effortless inhibition of the snacking impulse

People who are better with self-control (inhibition) around snacking have more success in regulating their behaviour not because they ‘resist’ temptation each time, but because they:

  1. prevented the creation of a bad habit or an addiction in the first place, by not putting themselves in the position where they have to resist or inhibit those impulses regularly, and
  2. established strong routines and automatic habits through repetition, resulting in weaker desires when presented with single temptations or even removing the dilemma of having to resist.

Take a moment to think about that!

Those two things combined help inhibit the unhealthy snacking effortlessly.

There are many strategies to prevent the creation of a snacking habit or an addiction AND to create strong routines that remove the snacking dilemma. Think of ways that you can stack up the conditions to make it happen.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Altering your environment so the temptation is no longer around.
  • Curating your current shopping list – or creating a brand new one.
  • Avoiding the pastries and snacks isles and sticking to your new shopping list.
  • Not keeping any sweets or snacks at home or work.
  • Keeping food (even healthy ones) out of sight or out of reach.
  • Circumventing the street of your favourite bakery.
  • Looking away (and holding your nose!) if you do walk by it.

All of these things are part of what is called ‘choice architecture’, whereby you arrange your circumstances so the need for a choice (the dilemma) is removed.

Consider this: you can better your self-control by creating effective routines, or habits, which are carried out automatically, rather than by forcing the inhibition every time that temptation arises. In other words, you can boost your habit strength.

Enter: habit strength

Habit strength is another word for automatically repeating a habit. It’s a function of the frequency with which an action has been repeated in a stable context and has acquired a high degree of habitual automation.

So when you repeat the habit that you have set up, and do it regularly and automatically, it can be said you have good habit strength.

Here’s a visual representation of habit strength:

Habit Strength = Action Frequency x Level of Automation

Habit Strength = Action Frequency x Level of Automation

 

The results of this study point out that the connection between self-control and unhealthy snack consumption is dependent on your habit strength.

Habits mediate the relation between self-control and behaviour.

I think that’s fantastic news. Particularly for those who struggle with a snacking issue.

This proves the fact that self-control can result from behavioural automation rather than an effortful path.

When your routine becomes that strong, resisting the snacking impulse can be effortless.

You can learn how to install strong routines here: Forget About Willpower: How to Install New Habits and Achieve Great Things

And if you’d like to become a go-to expert on this, we dive really deep into eating psychology in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner online course.

How about you?

How would you rate your habit strength? Do you have any automatic habits that have helped you to successfully steer clear of unhealthy snacking?

Jump in the conversation below and share with our very supportive community! Pass this along to someone you know who would love to know that self-control around food doesn’t need to be effortful.


Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.

42 Comments

  • Heather

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I really enjoyed reading this. It’s like looking at snacking from the reverse side of the coin.

    • Heather — let me borrow your “coin” analogy for a moment, it’s perfect: the ideal scenario is a WEAK unhealthy snacking habit strength on one side and a STRONG healthy eating habit strength on the other side.

  • Kitty

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I have serious issues with binge eating, admittedly all on healthy foods but none the less eating too much even when I’m not hungry as though on auto pilot!
    This will be interesting for me to see how I cope with this! Fingers crossed! Any advice please let me know!

    • Kitty — in some cases, eating until complete satiation is not a fault of character but more of a natural trait. It’s not uncommon either: 33% of our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss students (i.e. 2,037 individuals as I write this) fall into this category, so you’re not alone. For them, portion control is not the solution (or at least not long-term). So rather than trying to fight this tendency, there are ways to manage around it and that’s what we teach them. One of them is, for example, reducing meal frequency, particularly in those who are sensitive to food rewards, which can help to experience real hunger and also limit their opportunities for overconsumption

  • Joe

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    If you can do your food shopping online. That’s what I do and I find that all temptation of buying snacks & nibbles completely removed… try it. it works for me

  • Lisa Precious

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I believe this is true however it takes some level of will power for something to eventually become effortless. I have a bit of a dark chocolate addiction and limit myself to 2 squares a day, sure I could eat the lot but I allow myself a little pleasure then wrap it up quick and hide it back in the cupboard, that said it is a daily habit but one I find good for me and my well being in general!

  • gwyn

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    Two things I have found helpful with addiction to snacking are have a glass of water every time you feel the need. This fills the gap and helps you determine whether you are really hungry.
    If I am watching Tv I will go through multiple snacks without noticing but if I keep my hands busy (in my case easy knitting tasks for charity) I go through the whole evening without even thinking about snacks.

  • Kim

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I too have an issue with snacking. I recently made the change to eating healthily (trying to always eat gluten free, no refined sugars etc.) and I was amazed with the difference I felt. However, my issue is when I am at work, and the kitchen table is always covered in biscuits/cakes/crisps and I always find myself finishing lunch with a sneaky handful of something – Not ideal but I just can’t seem to stop myself.
    I start every day telling myself I won’t do it today, and then lunch comes around… Any advice on stopping this would be great!

    • Kim — your goal here is to remove the dilemma of having to fight any impulses in the first place. Is being in this kitchen part of your job, or is it just the place where you have lunch? Because if it’s the latter, you can for example take your lunch somewhere else, at least temporarily to weaken that habit. I know it may sound a bit anti-social, but you may even “convert” some people who follow you :-)

  • Cris

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I have experienced this myself and is sooo true! I made it! 3.5 years ago I stopped eating refined sugar and the first 4 months I had to put some effort into it but right after that until now you can just put my favourite cheesecake on my face and I will refuse to eat it. Not only that I don’t crave whatsoever, I will not put that sugar inside of me if you pay me… so I guess my habits have strengthen enough by now. I have not been drinking soda or eaten sweets for years, instead I prepare my own delicious and healthier stacks that actually give me nutrients instead of consuming them.

    All I wanted to say is that is doable, anyone can do it and after a while it truly becomes effortless. Just find delicious healthy food! ;)

    • Sarena

      Reply Reply November 13, 2014

      Cris – would love some of your healthy recipes for yummy snacks/desserts/food without any of the refined sugars for myself and my kids. I know its doable – just need some good options. Thanks!

  • Viv

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I found this a very interesting topic. I recently downloaded a free kindle book off Amazon called “Challenge Yourself: I dare you – A better you in 30 days”. Basically it proposes setting yourself 30 day challenges in order to create a ‘good habit’. The concept is great, and it is an easy read, although the book style is a little irritating… Despite that, I would recommend this free kindle book for those who want to create a new good habit. The challenges do not have to be very difficult. I started by making sure I had washed up everything before going to bed – now that is a habit, and weirdly I even get some pleasure from doing it! Then I tried a 10 minute per day exercise routine – that is quite fun! Now I am graduating to NOT buying chocolate for 30 days – let us see if I can find a way to enjoy that!

  • Kitty

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    Thank you all for all the comments I am sure to take them on board! It is definetly an issue of self control but I did nearly die from anorexia so over eat to ensure I will never be like that again although being fully recovered and bang on weight!

  • Jayne

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I personally find that making my lunch and planning exactly what I will eat at certain times of the day, helps me avoid snacking.

  • Janet

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    In the office setting where eating is considered a social event, I like to pretend I am the designated role model and make sure I have on my plate only those items that have some food value. Some people make snide remarks but I figure if I can inspire even one person, I am doing my part to make a better world.

  • brenda

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    Hi there I am going through this habitual strength dilemma at the moment and I have put mines down to years of coping with an eating disorder and progression onto serious snacking. I think I am addicted to sugar so any comments will be helpful.

  • Lindsay

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I find that planning out what I will during the day helps me to avoid any unnecessary snacking. It seems to help for the most part. I’ve recently started eating gluten free meals to see if I can prevent myself from eating any unhealthy meals/snacks.

  • Claudia

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    Brenda, the first 3 days are hard when trying to break a sugar addiction after that it becomes much easier. Keep all sugary treats out of the house. If you do a vending machine at work then make sure you don’t have any change or small bills with you at work to make it harder to indulge. Ask your family or coworkers to help keep you on track. Read Sugar Blues and understand why sugar is so harmful. Write down all the reasons why you should avoid sugar and what you want to accomplish. In 2009 I was told that without extensive chemo and radiation I would only have a year to live. I politely, or maybe not so politely, told them what they could do with their chemo and radiation. I completely changed my diet. No sugar, white anything, alcohol, caffeine, no processed food. It wasn’t hard because I had a strong reason not to cheat and now it is 5 1/2 years later and I am still here and healthier than ever. If your motivation is strong enough you can break that addiction, I know because I WAS a sugar addict as well.

  • Christy

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I just realized that I used habit strength at the store the other day when I saw a new product at the counter. I told the clerk it looked really good but I didn’t want to try it because I didn’t want to start a new addiction. This has habit has worked well for me with several new baked good products that have come out recently. The one habit I still struggle with though is getting through the candy checkout at the grocery store. I wish they had a lane that did not have candy options. I still find myself reaching for a Reeses even when I’m not strongly craving one. The automaed habit to have one is strongly learned and instilled in me. Any suggestions besides looking away?

  • Skip Poster

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    This is exactly right, it’s the habits that need to change. My wife works nights and I wait up for her and we always have some wine before bed. While I’am watching the late night news I find myself wanting to snack before she gets home. One thing I have tried was to take a little nap before she gets home to keep me from snacking. It works , but there has to be better ways to break this habit!

    • brenda

      Reply Reply November 13, 2014

      Shifts are not the best,I have found that out as well,sleep is a good one for me I do plenty.

  • brenda

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    Claudia I can only commend you for what you have achieved,I am definitely going to try this as it making me depressed.I have children in the house so makes it hard not having any treats around

  • I love reading your comments.

    Viv — your enthusiasm is so contagious and when you graduate from your 30-day no-chocolate policy we’ll be celebrating with you!

    Claudia — thanks for sharing your personal story and for inspiring others!

  • Donna

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    To avoid unhealthy snacking, when at work especially at this time of the year, when the unhealthy snacks are bought into the office, I make sure that I do not leave myself hungry at any part of the day. I ensure that I prepare a good breakfast and lunch and a have healthy mid morning/afternoon snack with me. I keep myself well hydrated and keep my focus on my long-term goals (healthy weight, healthy mind and body) and take my focus away from unhealthy snacks. It also helps when I view the unhealthy snack at its true value, for example, I no longer view cakes as a ‘naughty but nice treat’ but as sugar and fat; crisps as potatoes sliced thinly and fried in oil. It then doesn’t appeal to me.
    Good luck to everyone who is making or ready to make a change for the better.

  • suz

    Reply Reply November 13, 2014

    I have personally seen the results of effortless weight loss, just by women removing themselves from a situation where they were doomed to lose… or rather keep gaining… weight. I was working overseas and some of my colleagues were over for a long period of time without their families, so they surrounded themselves with only what THEY wanted. No food for teenagers that you are tempted to eat, no cooking big meaty meals for your husband, only you get to eat what you want when you want it. My friend lost 30 pounds, just because of this.

  • Viv

    Reply Reply November 14, 2014

    There are some really great techniques and ideas coming out of this conversation – I hope someone involved in this site could pull out a top ten tips for sharing more widely?

    • admin

      Reply Reply November 14, 2014

      Great idea, Viv! I’ll share it with the team :) — Maria

  • Karl

    Reply Reply November 14, 2014

    Slightly off topic but can you add a follow thread option that you are notified if people reply to the responses? The only current way is to leave a response and then you are notified but sometimes you’ve nothing to add but you want to follow any more comments being made over time? Good work people! We’re all ahead of the curve because we’ve taken “Responsibility” for our Health!!!! That’s the 1st step in my eyes and thats how I get the people around me to do 1st!!! Start thinking about it and taking “Responsibility” and tell them about the consequences if they don’t, or better yet show them. Karl

    • admin

      Reply Reply November 14, 2014

      Hi Karl! If you ticked the box next to “Yes, tell me when new comments are added” then you’ll be receiving the notifications in your inbox. We love to hear you’re enjoying the conversation :) — Maria

  • Diane Poulsen

    Reply Reply November 15, 2014

    I always had a problem after lunch at the office wanting to snack on bad sugary things. My go to good habit is a healthy smoothie which fills me up and I have no desire now for bad treats.

  • Ellen

    Reply Reply November 15, 2014

    Thank you for all the info and tips. I will try to effortless decline the offers of coworkers and friends to try their “holiday” treats if they are the sugary, creamy treats we have every holiday season. But I also think that complete depriving yourself may not be as effortless and may stir you to eat substitutes. Which may increases your fat and carb intake. From the mindful studies I remember to may satisfy your appetite for your favorite treat by ensuring you have just a very small piece of dark chocolate instead nougat. Let it mr in your mouth for complete satisfaction. You may choose a get bites of celery or carrots with humus instead of potatoe chips ………

  • lesley jefferson

    Reply Reply December 11, 2014

    Great tips! I also use clinical hypnosis to help clients kick start the habits.

  • Chrissy Theodoridis

    Reply Reply January 5, 2015

    I think eating healthy is more rewarding and fun then eating bad foods and feeling guilty. I didn’t always think that way, in fact I probably didn’t put much thought into what I ate until I found myself looking a bit heavier then I liked. It is definitely a process however once you get into the habit of clean eating the thought of putting unhealthy foods in your body becomes something you will turn your head to without even thinking about it.

    I started by choosing not to skip breakfast and waiting until I’m hungry to eat. Now I prepare all my work meals the day before I go to work so I’m eating or snacking on healthy foods every two hours. The best part is the healthier you eat the more you can eat! I never buy junk food for home and if I’m having a bad day at work I will opt for a mini chocolate bar instead of a full sized chocolate bar. I think any small step towards your goal is a step in the right direction. If I can do it, anyone can!

  • Susan

    Reply Reply April 21, 2015

    I feel to form a habit you need to fight one first. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation and to be able to resist a snack or temptation you need to have enough will power first to say ‘no’. If you are in the right place in your head then it is easier. As Cris said, if you will not eat refined sugars for a while you will not crave them and are actually not able to eat something with refined sugar in them. The problem is that we start to snack when we are bored, not necessarily when we are hungry. The most dangerous place is work, if you work in an office. There is something lurking in every corner and you can’t get away from it. All there is left to say is ‘no’. I would like Cris’ healthy snacks as well. They might be on Pinit. I snack on things like branflakes instead of crisps because when I hear the others crunching on crisps I want them as well but I’ve got my flakes. No substitute of course but a small one.

  • Ellen

    Reply Reply April 29, 2015

    I made the experience that starting to snack on a “substitute” just makes me more hungry. I have always fruit at my desk and there is nothing better than a sweet orange, a crisp apple, some ice cold grapes. I am also a coffee drinker, so if really in need for a treat, I may have an espresso, make it a long one so the heart is not racing and add a spoon full of sugar. I know, the white stuff isn’t the best solution, but it does the trick to get over the sweets.

  • Lydia

    Reply Reply May 26, 2015

    I learned a great deal from this article. I am a sugar addict and it doesn’t help that I make great desserts. Crisps and the like I can easily live without. I am particular on chocolate as well, so the check out aisle is safe for me as those are the ones I don’t like. I plan on eating from now on every 2 hrs to help curb my hunger. If I concentrate on fruits and veggies the most, that should help me with my sweet tooth. I just need to make sure I get some protein as well, probably about twice a day don’t you think?

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