Understanding the physical and psychological factors that drive snacking behaviour is the first step in controlling it. Take a moment to read these statements – which ones sound like you?

I often skip meals and sometimes spend days just ‘grazing’ Skipping meals (especially breakfast) is a big nutritional no-no. Far from helping you to lose weight, skipping meals makes you more likely to snack on high sugar, high calorie foods, so you end up consuming more energy in the day than you would have otherwise. Furthermore, skipping meals may slow down your metabolism, so it’s easier for you to put on weight and harder to lose it, and you feel tired and scatter-brained into the bargain.
I have good intentions - but I always cave in and go for the unhealthy option You’re not alone in having a gap between intended and actual behaviour. In a Dutch study published in 2008, participants were asked to indicate whether they would choose a healthy or unhealthy snack, and about 50 per cent chose each option. A week later, when the time came to select and actually eat a snack, more than one in four of those who’d previously planned to choose the healthy snack went for the unhealthy one instead.
I’m very disciplined about my diet, but if I lose control everything goes to pot Adhering strictly to a diet or eating plan might seem like a sound approach to weight management, but for most people, it’s not sustainable. The more restrictive and restrained you are with your eating, the more likely you are to fall off the wagon and have a real blow-out on high calorie, high fat foods. Over time, this results in yo-yo dieting, and this slows down the metabolism.
I snack on unhealthy foods, particularly when I’m stressed This is another common pattern among overweight and obese people of both sexes. You’re more likely to be susceptible to emotional eating if you’re also highly disciplined with your diet. The level of conscious control (or lack of it) that you perceive you have over your eating may be a contributing factor. It’s not just being stressed that makes the biscuit jar beckon so beguilingly, either – feelings of hostility and anxiety also trigger this kind of eating.
Once I start eating, I don’t know when to stop One problem is that your brain is slow to recognise when your belly is full, so you keep eating beyond the point of being satiated. You might also be responding to external cues to eat, rather than an inner physiological sense of hunger. Triggers could be environmental (“I always have a choc-top at the movies”), visual (“Once I saw the cake on the table I had to eat it”) or emotional (“I was bored at work so I had a packet of chips”).
Most of my snacking happens in front of the TV This kind of mindless eating contributes to an enormous number of weight problems and has even been documented in preschool-aged children. It’s scientifically proven that the transfixing effects of television make you eat more. In part, the distraction of the TV dampens your brain’s ability to register that you’re full, so you just keep on putting food in your mouth. However, the calorie-promoting effects persist even after you’ve turned the telly off. For example, when offered a snack of cookies in the afternoon, women who had watched television while eating their lunch ate more than women who had eaten their previous meal without TV.
My sugar cravings are impossible to resist. I think it could be my hormones Cravings and snacking behaviour can certainly have a hormonal basis. In particular, the influence of the hormone insulin is intimately involved with blood sugar levels, and that can influence your desire for sugar and carbohydrates. Women may find that their snacking habits change during the course of their monthly cycle, with intensified cravings for sugar and carbohydrates during the premenstrual phase. The reverse is also true: the way you eat can impact on your hormonal health. For example, women who frequently consume snacks made from rapidly absorbed carbohydrates (e.g. sugars and refined flours) experience more rapid onset of menopausal symptoms than women who don’t. And poor long-term dietary habits could mean your future includes type 2 diabetes. If there is a hormonal basis to your cravings, then appropriate treatment will bring them under control. The first step is to determine exactly what’s going on, so arrange for the appropriate tests with your GP.

Jayne Tancred is a naturopath, herbalist and nutritionist with more than 15 years experience.