Two bowls of a concoction of yogurt, nuts and berries are shown.
As snacks go, it’s hard to beat a concoction of yogurt, nuts and berries. It’s healthy, filling and always delicious. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Work a while. Take a break. Walk to the fridge. Have a snack.

And repeat.

If you’re among the many working from home because of COVID-19 restrictions, this routine might sound familiar.

Long hours working at home. Easy access to the refrigerator. The stressors of 2020.

They’ve all conspired to create a common problem: mindless snacking.

“It’s definitely something that people are struggling with,” said Holly Dykstra, RD, a dietitian with Spectrum Health Preventive Cardiology. “Increased isolation and stress can cause disrupted eating patterns. It’s easy to feel like you’re by yourself on an island. But if you know that the rest of humanity is also experiencing this, maybe you can give yourself some compassion, accept the situation, and then move on without using food as a tool to cope.”

Dykstra is here to help you do just that.

Her tips for avoiding those constant snack breaks:

Set meal times

Carve out time for three meals per day. If you don’t, you may run the risk of poorly balanced blood sugars or excessive hunger later in the day, she said.

When our energy levels drop or our metabolism is imbalanced, that’s when we’re also more likely to crave something less nutritious to boost our blood sugar levels—something like sweets and refined carbs.

“We’re going to reach for those things more when our body is not in a regulated state,” Dykstra said.

Take a lunch break

Taking time for lunch doesn’t mean scarfing down a sandwich while you type away at your computer.

Instead, get up from your work space for 20-30 minutes and eat somewhere else. (It’s not a great idea to have your work space in the kitchen.)

Just eat. Don’t multi-task.

“When we do something else while we’re eating, we tend to make food the secondary focus,” Dykstra said. “It’s a bit mindless. We don’t pay attention to our hunger and fullness clues, and we don’t fully enjoy our food. This may cause us to eat more, or more often.”

If you always eat at your workspace, you can create what’s known as a Pavolovian response, where objects or events can trigger a certain response, Dykstra said. In other words, you sit down at your desk and you suddenly want to eat.

Heed the hunger cues

Working from home during a stressful pandemic provides easy access to food. It’s a recipe for emotional eating, Dykstra said. You might eat because you want a distraction or because you’re anxious.

Instead, pay attention to your hunger. Dykstra likes to think of hunger using a scale—zero is famished and feeling weak, 10 is stuffed or too full.

You want to begin a meal when you’re around a 3, which is when you’re hungry but not starving. Then stop when you reach a 7, or when you’re feeling satisfied and nourished.

If you’re eating three balanced meals a day with nutrient-dense carbohydrates, proteins and fats, you might not even need snacks, Dykstra said.

“It’s very personal,” she said.

It depends on your activity level and the balance of your meals, as well as hormones, gender and more, she said. If you add more fiber and protein to your meals, you might find yourself not needing to eat until the next meal.

You might also think you’re hungry when really you’re just thirsty, Dykstra said. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help identify your level of hunger.

Be prepared with healthy food

Make a shopping list with healthy snacks in mind.

“If you don’t have a kitchen that’s well-stocked, you are more likely to turn to foods that could give you comfort, or foods that are convenient but not necessarily healthful,” Dykstra said.

A healthy snack is nutrient-dense. Pairing a healthy carbohydrate with a healthy protein or fat can be helpful for health and satisfaction. Some examples:

  • Fruit with a few nuts or a small piece of cheese
  • Apples with natural peanut butter and cinnamon or a drizzle of honey
  • Celery with natural peanut butter and a few chocolate chips
  • Plain Greek yogurt with berries or sliced banana and cinnamon
  • Air-popped popcorn
  • Veggie sticks with hummus or a small serving of dip

“The big thing here is that at the end of the day, our goal is to eat better for our bodies and avoid mindless eating and weight gain,” she said. “It only takes 20-30 minutes a week to plan and it’s going to pay off big time.”

Don’t deprive yourself

The surest way to make yourself want something unhealthy for a snack is to tell yourself you can’t have it, she said.

“In times of stress, we need to allow ourselves some grace,” she said. “If we constantly tell ourselves ‘no,’ it’s going to backfire.”

If you assess your hunger level and decide you’re really not that hungry, but you want something specific, you might need to tell yourself you can have it—but in moderation.

“If you decide to have a cookie, really show up for that food rather than just stuffing it in your mouth,” she said. “Remove yourself from your work area, sit down and enjoy it slowly. Pay attention to it using all of your senses. Give yourself that moment. Then be mindful of your food choices the rest of the day.”