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 dieting and 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 polished 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 the human body gets enough food to satisfy its energy needs, another problem may arise — one that might have been happening simultaneously: emotional perfectionism, a phenomenon that psychologist Robert Leahy uses to describe insisting that life 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 in 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.
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.
With procrastination, though, the Stop, Drop, & Feel alone might not be enough to ease the craving for snacks. Instead, you need to roll up your sleeves and start. Projects and procrastination can only push us to eat when we aren’t hungry when we allow them to stall us.
When we push forward and “feel the fear and do it anyway,” to quote author Susan Jeffers, that’s when we learn how to stop snacking at work – at least in regard to procrastination-fueled cravings for snacks.
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.4
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.5, 6
In the contemporary corporate setting, this biological response translates into the compelling urge to reach for snacks at work. 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.
Before attributing it to a momentary lapse in discipline, take a moment to reflect and ask yourself if you’ve adequately nourished your body on that particular day. Understanding this science can help you approach workplace snacking with greater empathy for your body’s natural response to dieting and restriction.
4. Free Food at Work Is Hard to Turn Down
In many workplaces, free food is a common perk. Whether it’s leftover catering from a meeting, a colleague’s birthday celebration, or snacks in the breakroom, there’s often an abundance of free food available. This abundance can trigger a fear of wasting money.
Consider this scenario: You’re presented with a spread of free food, and it’s challenging to resist because you feel like you’re getting something valuable for free. You might think, “If I don’t eat this now, I’m essentially throwing away the money that I could have saved on lunch.” This financial perspective can be a powerful motivator to indulge in snacks, even if you’re not hungry.
However, it’s important to reframe this mindset. While it’s true that free food can save you money in the short term, overindulging in snacks can lead to health issues down the line, potentially costing you more in the long run. By recognizing the true value of your health and well-being, you can begin to make more mindful choices when faced with free food.
Another significant factor that makes it hard to resist free food at work is the fear of wasting food. This fear can be rooted in several sources, including the belief that leaving food uneaten is disrespectful.
When there’s free food available, there’s often a sense of obligation to consume it. People may feel that by not eating what’s offered, they’re contributing to food wastage, which can be distressing. This emotional trigger intensifies the inclination to eat even if you’re not genuinely hungry.
To address this fear of wasting food, it’s essential to recognize that your eating habits are personal and should not be solely driven by external pressures or perceived judgments. You can take steps to reduce food waste in more effective ways, such as planning meals mindfully, practicing portion control, and sharing leftovers with colleagues rather than overindulging.
5. Candy Dishes Are Notoriously Difficult to Avoid at Work
Once you’ve addressed the psychology of eating, 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.7 However, when candy is kept in an opaque bowl, it becomes less visually appealing 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.8 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.
As I mentioned earlier, I vividly remember the time where I got into a disagreement with a coworker and only after that did the chocolate on my desk catch my attention. This is why I believe that many compulsive eaters have far more willpower than they give themselves credit for. You are not “weak” for giving in to office snacks simply because “they’re there” — after all, you might only notice they’re there because you’re dealing with stressful circumstances.
As you work on learning how to stop snacking at work, I encourage you to tweak your environmental design when possible (especially because it only takes a few minutes) and then focus the rest of your energy on the deeper psychological triggers to overeating such as emotional perfectionism and the fear of wasting food.
6. Eating At Your Desk While Working Leads to Overeating
In the hustle and bustle of modern workplaces, it’s not uncommon to settle for eating lunch at your desk. At first glance, this may appear like a pragmatic time-saving choice, but it can inadvertently lead to overeating and disconnection from your body’s natural hunger cues.
We’ve all heard about mindful eating and its potential benefits, but I understand the frustration that can come with trying to practice it in the midst of a hectic workday. Personally, I’ve experienced the self-criticism that can arise when we struggle to muster the mental energy for mindful eating while grappling with demanding workloads. It’s tough to focus on savoring every bite when work drains your emotional tolerance.
However, research has shown that distracted eating, such as consuming your meals while immersed in work tasks, can blur the lines between genuine physical hunger and mindless consumption.9 At the same time, knowing that mindful eating is good for you but struggling to practice it can cause even more mental anguish. If you resonate with this, then try to find a happy medium.
Try your best not to eat at your desk as this not only diminishes your ability to eat mindfully, but it also increases stress. Instead, eat your meal somewhere else that’s more relaxed.
Also, do what you can to make it more enjoyable, whether that’s listening to music or a podcast or a funny cat video on YouTube. Although it’s not exactly mindful eating, it adds joy to your day, which means you’ll be less likely to compulsively seek joy through food (hedonic eating) later.
7. A Workday Without Breaks Leads to Office Snacking
In the fast-paced world of work, it’s not uncommon to power through your workday without taking breaks. While this dedication to productivity is commendable, it can inadvertently stop you from learning how to stop snacking at work.
As I’ve explored earlier, emotional comfort often plays a significant role in our workplace snacking habits. 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 repreive, 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 your capacity to cope with emotional challenges without food diminishes.
When you’re exhausted, a coworker’s irritating comment might irk you more than it should, or a minor setback might feel like a major catastrophe. These are precisely the moments when you might be tempted to turn to office snacks for a quick emotional boost or distraction.
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.
I know what it’s like to feel guilty for taking time for yourself, even if it’s perfectly reasonable. If you struggle with feeling worthy of breaks, write your qualms down in a journal. Often, when we see our worries on paper — such as, “If I take a break, I’ll look like a slacker” — we have a better chance at realizing where we’re underestimating ourselves (i.e. you probably work harder than you realize).
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:
- The Stop, Drop, & Feel: When you feel the urge to snack without hunger, pause and get curious about your emotions. Give them space to come forward without resisting them. For more details on this important tool, see my article on mastering the Stop, Drop, & Feel.
- Honoring Physical Hunger: The Stop, Drop, & Feel does not work if you’re actually hungry. Learn to recognize genuine hunger cues, especially if you’ve been dieting and/or trying to lose weight, and allow yourself to eat when your body truly needs nourishment. It’s healthy to respond to physical hunger with a balanced meal or snack!
- “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.
- Mindful Consumption 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. If you get triggered around food waste, see my article on overcoming the fear of wasting food.
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind: 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.
- Mindful Eating Spaces: Choose a dedicated area to eat your meals mindfully, away from your desk. This separation helps you keep work stress away from your mealtime. You can eat without distraction if you want or if you have the energy for it, or you can add some joy to your mealtime by listening to music or watching something that you enjoy. If your workday is draining, adding extra joy to your mealtime can stave off the urge to eat for pleasure later on.
- Work-Life Balance and 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.
- Planning 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.
- Staying Hydrated: Drinking enough water is important regardless of any compulsions to snack at work. However, don’t fall for the common myth that people commonly confuse thirst with physical hunger. There is a lack of clinical evidence supporting this, and there’s actually an abundance of clinical evidence refuting that thirst is commonly mistaken for physical hunger.10, 11, 12
As I mentioned earlier, most advice available online about how to stop snacking at work contains cookie-cutter advice – some of which is blatantly wrong from a clinical perspective. I was surprised that I could not find one clinical study that supports thirst being confused with hunger. I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but it was dramatically easier to find evidence against it than in support of it.
Finding Ease Around Office Snacks
I know what it’s like to feel helpless and compulsive around office snacks. Hopefully, by understanding the psychological motivations behind the urge to reach for snacks, you can find both self-compassion and a roadmap out of the pattern.
The Stop, Drop, & Feel can help you develop emotional tolerance over the long term. In the meantime, it’s also important to address other factors such as taking breaks when necessary and making sure you’re actually eating enough. If you want more resources on stopping compulsive eating, don’t miss my amazing freebies below. They take all of these concepts even deeper.
- Cameron, Jameason D et al. “Energy depletion by diet or aerobic exercise alone: impact of energy deficit modality on appetite parameters.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 103,4 (2016): 1008-16. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.115584
- Tschöp, M et al. “Ghrelin induces adiposity in rodents.” Nature 407,6806 (2000): 908-13. doi:10.1038/35038090
- Yau, Y H C, and M N Potenza. “Stress and eating behaviors.” Minerva endocrinologica 38,3 (2013): 255-67.
- Thomas, Elizabeth A et al. “Eating-related behaviors and appetite during energy imbalance in obese-prone and obese-resistant individuals.” Appetite 65 (2013): 96-102. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.01.015
- Derous, Davina et al. “The effects of graded levels of calorie restriction: VI. Impact of short-term graded calorie restriction on transcriptomic responses of the hypothalamic hunger and circadian signaling pathways.” Aging 8,4 (2016): 642-63. doi:10.18632/aging.100895
- Fazzino, Tera L et al. “Hyper-Palatable Foods: Development of a Quantitative Definition and Application to the US Food System Database.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.) 27,11 (2019): 1761-1768. doi:10.1002/oby.22639
- Wansink, B et al. “The office candy dish: proximity’s influence on estimated and actual consumption.” International journal of obesity (2005) vol. 30,5 (2006): 871-5. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803217
- Hunter, Jennifer A et al. “Effect of snack-food proximity on intake in general population samples with higher and lower cognitive resource.” Appetite 121 (2018): 337-347. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.11.101
- Robinson, Eric et al. “Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 97,4 (2013): 728-42. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.045245
- McKiernan, Fiona et al. “Thirst-drinking, hunger-eating; tight coupling?.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109,3 (2009): 486-90. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2008.11.027
- Carroll, Harriet A et al. “Hydration status affects thirst and salt preference but not energy intake or postprandial ghrelin in healthy adults: A randomised crossover trial.” Physiology & behavior 212 (2019): 112725. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112725
- McKiernan, Fiona et al. “Relationships between human thirst, hunger, drinking, and feeding.” Physiology & behavior 94,5 (2008): 700-8. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.04.007