Kari Dahlgren

Coach | Author | Advocate

feel normal around food again

How to Stop Snacking at Work: 7 Ways to Apply Eating Psychology to Office Snack Habits

how to stop unwanted snacking at work

Typical advice on how to stop snacking at work is to put food out of sight so that they’re “out of mind,” pack meals ahead of time, and have more willpower. To me, these tips perpetuate the stigma that compulsive eaters lack willpower, and these tips completely overlook the psychology of eating.

Sure, putting the dish of candy away is helpful, and we will dig into the clinical evidence behind it later, but environmental design is not as powerful as eating psychology. From my experience navigating my own obsession with office snacks and coaching others through their own eating psychology, I believe that reaching for food without hunger goes much deeper.

In this article, I am proud to offer you some fresh and practical strategies for learning how to stop snacking at work without beating yourself up for “lacking” so-called willpower.

My Personal Experience Learning How to Stop Snacking at Work

I can recall the struggle with office snacks all too well. Before I took my business on full-time, I had a typical 9-5 office job where they graciously offered free snacks. (We will talk about why it’s so difficult to turn down free food in this article, too!)

During the early stages of my career — before 2016 when I finally gave up dieting — I was still trying to lose weight by eating less; and I was constantly frustrated by my temptation and inevitable give-in to office snacks. After eating a healthy breakfast and lunch, I’d find myself grazing the office snack shelf and eating one chip bag after another, undoing all my dieting efforts.

Despite my best intentions, I’d polish off 4 bags of “snack-sized” chips and feel awful about myself and my so-called lack of willpower. Except, it wasn’t a lack of willpower. Diet culture overshadows the evidence-based phenomenon that restricting your diet triggers biological “rebellion” against dieting.[1] This rebellion includes, among other things, the release of hormones like ghrelin that increase hunger and cravings for hyperpalatable foods, or foods high in fat, salt, sugar, and carbs — much like office snacks.[2]

Is it fair to say that you lack willpower for succumbing to office snacks when studies show that your body is hard-wired to crave high-calorie foods when you haven’t eaten enough?[3]

This is why I’m passionate about breaking the stigma that compulsive eaters lack willpower. It’s actually our strict adherence to restrictive dieting that causes some compulsive eating behavior. After I gave up dieting and stopped restricting my diet, I stopped thinking about office snacks as much.

However, giving up dieting was only half the battle. Once we eat enough food to fuel our energy needs, another problem may arise — one that might have been happening simultaneously: emotional perfectionism, a phenomenon that psychologist Robert Leahy uses to describe a belief that life should be happy 100% of the time.

Edginess commonly crops up in the workplace from triggers such as stressful deadlines, turbulent communication with coworkers, and the endless pressure to perform. In a culture that worships happiness, which heightens patterns of emotional perfectionism, it makes it even more compelling to reach for something to buffer uncomfortable feelings in the workplace — and office snacks happen to be a convenient way to self-soothe.

Understanding Why We Snack at Work & How to Stop

For many, the journey of figuring out how to stop snacking at work might begin with looking at how restrictive your diet is, and it might also go even deeper than that. Our eating habits go far beyond the need to keep snacks “out of sight and out of mind.” The desire to eat without hunger is intertwined with our emotions, often without realizing it.

Here are some compelling reasons why you might feel compelled to snack in the office and what you can do to learn how to stop snacking at work:

1. Stress, Anxiety, and Work Pressures Can Lead to Snacking

Stress and anxiety are common culprits behind our food choices at work. Amid the hustle and bustle, looming project deadlines, and the pressure to perform, it’s easy to seek refuge in office snacks, especially when they’re free.

One of the chapters in my book, Daily Reminders on Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, recollects a day in the office where I had a disagreement with a coworker, and the chocolates on my desk immediately grabbed my attention. They were always within sight, and yet they only started to consume my thoughts after a disagreement. This was one of the pivotal moments in my life where I saw with crystal clarity the connection between emotional discomfort and compulsive eating.

Emotional perfectionism makes us inclined to buffer negative emotions with food. Therefore, in my work as an eating psychology coach, I’ve found that emotional tolerance is essential for stopping compulsive eating. Emotional tolerance is your ability to sit still with discomfort without being swept into compulsion like snacking without hunger.

With emotional tolerance, you’d be able to have a disagreement with a coworker, feel uncomfortable about it, but stay with yourself instead of reaching for office snacks to self-soothe. Emotional tolerance is a hard-won skill — I say that from personal experience and on behalf of everyone who has tried my tools!

If you want to develop emotional tolerance so that you can learn how to stop snacking at work, my Stop, Drop, & Feel tool is the perfect solution. It involves pausing to make space for your emotions at the precise moment you want to reach for a buffer like food when you aren’t hungry.

When we practice this over the long-term, we develop tolerance for discomfort and, as a result, stop feeling compelled to reach for snacks at work when we aren’t hungry. Studies have even shown that enhanced emotional tolerance is associated with reduced overeating.[4]

2. Snacking Offers Procrastination on Looming Work Projects

I can also recall with stark clarity many moments in the office where I would reach for snacks in procrastination of a looming project. Yet, I wasn’t aware that I was doing it out of procrastination. As I mentioned earlier, while I was struggling with eating too many snacks at work, I was berating myself for lacking willpower. If procrastination doesn’t resonate with you, I encourage you to keep an open mind and consider it anyway.

Compulsive snacking is a common reaction to big projects at work. When a project feels large and looming, there’s a lot at stake.

There’s a fear of failure; a fear that we won’t do a good job; a fear that our work won’t be good enough; and snacks offer both distraction and temporary joy.

Projects make us vulnerable in a way, because our work is going to be scrutinized by somebody — whether that’s a boss, a reader, or a client. Vulnerability, although not a negative emotion per se, is still a difficult emotion to cope with and therefore commonly triggers compulsive eating behaviors.

This is why I recommend doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel in the moment before you want to reach for a snack at the office when you aren’t hungry. It will give you the space to step back and ask yourself how you’re feeling; and if there’s a looming project, some of those feelings might involve fear, anxiety, or procrastination.

3. Restrictive Dieting Can Increase Cravings for Snacks at Work

Not all cravings for snacks at work are emotional, though. It could be physical hunger, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. The prevailing notion of “eating less to lose weight” has long been ingrained in our modern culture. However, your body is biologically wired to crave food when you’re not eating enough, which means that restrictive dieting can often backfire in the workplace where snacks are readily available.[5]

Diets, typically designed to create a caloric deficit, may appear to be the logical path to weight loss. However, our bodies perceive this deficit as a potential threat to survival. Human biology prioritizes survival above all else. When we consistently consume fewer calories than our body requires, it triggers a biological alarm. This alarm manifests in the form of hunger-inducing hormones such as ghrelin urging us towards foods rich in energy sources like sugar and fat — commonly found in office snacks.[6], [7]

The next time you find yourself succumbing to office snacks, consider this: it may not be a matter of willpower but rather an innate biological reaction to undereating. Are you going too long without eating? Do you need to plan ways to nourish your body outside of back-to-back meetings?

4. Free Food at Work Is Hard to Turn Down

In many workplaces, free food is a common perk; whether it’s a colleague’s birthday celebration or snacks in the breakroom. This abundance can trigger a fear of wasting food and money.

Studies have shown that people who are sensitive to the social issue of food waste are more likely to plate-clear.[8] The same study also mentions a possible solution: taking leftovers.

But what if the struggle with food waste is financial? For example, when presented with free breakfast snacks at work — say, donuts — you might think, “If I don’t eat this now, I’m essentially throwing away the money that I would otherwise spend on lunch.” Or, “If I don’t eat this donut, I’m wasting one of the perks of my job.”

For this, I suggest looking at the fear of wasting money in reverse:

If skipping office snacks when you're not hungry feels like wasting $9, think of it as investing $9 in your health by honoring your hunger and fullness.

Many of us would spend upwards of tens of thousands of dollars to be rid of the food struggle, yet we’re afraid of wasting pocket change on “free food” at the office. If leaving free snacks uneaten causes financial worries, remind yourself of the financial commitment — not waste — you’re making towards your health.

5. Candy Dishes Are Notoriously Difficult to Avoid at Work

Once you’ve addressed the psychology of overeating, then environmental design should be addressed — not the other way around. Environmental design involves adjusting your surroundings to be helpful rather than a trigger for overeating.

In the office, environmental design can play a role in our urge to snack as candy dishes often encourage us to eat simply because it’s there. One research study found that if employees have candy on their desks in clear bowls, they are more likely to indulge in these treats.[9] However, when candy is kept in an opaque bowl, it becomes less visually stimulating and, as a result, employees tend to consume less of it.

Taking the concept a step further, other studies have revealed a consistent pattern known as the “proximity effect,” where placing snacks at a greater distance from individuals led to reduced consumption.[10] If you have snacks sitting on your desk at work, it could be worthwhile putting them away, particularly at great distance.

Keep in mind that while these findings emphasize the importance of environmental design, it’s essential to recognize that it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Addressing the root causes of workplace snacking, such as emotional discomfort, stress, and the fear of wasting free food, is equally important, if not more.

6. A Workday Without Breaks Leads to Office Snacking

Stress, anxiety, procrastination, and even the lure of free food are just a few of the emotional triggers that lead us to the office snack shelf. However, there’s another crucial element to consider here: emotional tolerance takes energy!

When you skip breaks and plow through your workday without reprieve, your body and mind may become fatigued. This fatigue doesn’t just manifest physically; it also affects your emotional resilience. You’re left feeling drained, and it diminishes your capacity to cope with emotional challenges without food.

When you’re exhausted, a coworker’s irritating comment might irk you more than it should, leading to a mindless trip to the office snack shelf. The Stop, Drop, & Feel helps with this, but it also does not replace taking frequent breaks. Otherwise, it’s just more work! Practice self-care by taking breaks when you need them.

7. Eating At Your Desk Leads to Overeating

Eating at your desk while working can lead to overeating, as distractions interfere with your body’s ability to accurately gauge food intake. Research indicates that distraction during meals not only increases the amount you eat immediately but also boosts subsequent food consumption, likely because your brain has a harder time remembering how much you’ve eaten.[11]

To counteract this, try to make your lunch break a distinct, enjoyable escape from work tasks. Do what you can to step away from your desk and get a full break from work-related stress. An added benefit of a stress-free lunch is that you’ll be less likely to compulsively seek joy through food later in the form of office snacks.

Action Steps: How to Stop Snacking At Work

Now that we’ve explored the underlying psychology behind workplace snacking, it’s time to use practical solutions to learn how to stop snacking at work. Remember, it’s not about having ironclad willpower but about understanding and addressing your body’s physical needs and your emotional triggers.

Here are some practical steps you can take to learn how to stop snacking at work:

  • Do the Stop, Drop, & Feel: When you feel the urge to snack without hunger, do the Stop, Drop, & Feel. Step outside or take a quick break from work, set your timer for just 2 minutes, and drop in. Embrace the full spectrum of your emotions to build emotional tolerance, a necessary skill for addressing emotional eating.
  • Honor Physical Hunger: The Stop, Drop, & Feel does not work if you’re actually hungry. Learn to recognize genuine hunger cues, especially if tend to work non-stop or schedule back-to-back meetings.
  • Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway: Instead of avoiding tasks that trigger stress or procrastination in the form of snacks, face them head-on. Acknowledge your feelings and move forward, reducing the need for snacks as a coping mechanism.
  • Stay Mindful of Free Food: When faced with free food at work, pause and consider its true value to your health. Often, a “free” $5 bagel pales in comparison to the price you’d pay to feel normal around food
  • Tweak Your Environment: If you can, keep snacks and candy dishes away from your immediate workspace. This simple environmental change can reduce impulse snacking, at least the kind of snacking that’s purely driven by visual cues versus emotional eating.
  • Nurture Work-Life Balance with Breaks: Prioritize self-care by taking regular breaks during your workday. Breaks rejuvenate your emotional resilience and reduce the temptation to snack for emotional comfort.
  • Plan Balanced Meals: Ensure you start your day with a satisfying breakfast and plan nourishing meals throughout the day. Adequate nutrition reduces the risk of intense cravings.

By taking steps to learn how to stop snacking at work — from a perspective that honors how eating psychology goes much deeper than environmental design — you can improve your focus and productivity throughout your day. Plus, by tackling the emotional triggers that lead to compulsive snacking at work, you enhance emotional resilience, which is a quality that pays dividends in the workplace and beyond.

Finding Ease Around Office Snacks

Understanding the psychology behind workplace snacking is essential to overcoming it effectively. By implementing strategies like the Stop, Drop, & Feel, recognizing genuine hunger, and adjusting your mindset around food waste, you take control of your snacking habits in a way that respects both your body’s needs and your emotional health.

The goal isn’t to muster more willpower but to cultivate a deeper understanding of yourself and your needs. By doing so, you can transform your relationship with food at work and create a more mindful, satisfying, and productive workday.

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Some say ‘feel it to heal it’ but this workbook takes it a step deeper and helps you ‘see it to heal it.’ If you’re the kind of person who logically knows how to live a healthy lifestyle but you compulsively do the opposite, this workbook will illuminate what’s standing in the way. Then, you know exactly where to focus your energy.

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2 thoughts on "How to Stop Snacking at Work: 7 Ways to Apply Eating Psychology to Office Snack Habits"

  1. Lizsays:

    Excellent piece. Nailed it.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks Liz! 🙂

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