The Snacking Struggle: Are You Addicted To Having Something In Your Mouth?

May 19, 2016  |  

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After I lost a considerable amount of weight last year, one of my colleagues whom I sing in the choir with asked for my advice on what she could and should do to drop a few pounds. After going for a checkup, she was told that she was prediabetic, meaning that her blood sugar was deemed quite high, but not high enough to necessarily make her a diabetic. Being prediabetic doesn’t mean that you will automatically find yourself with the condition sooner or later. With the right changes in your level of activity, some medication, and, of course, a major change in diet, you can avoid a diabetic diagnosis and improve your health altogether.

So, as she asked for tips on how to change up her diet, she told me that a certain addiction was causing her to feel like she needed to keep eating, all the time, which was holding her back.

“I’m like addicted to having something in my mouth all of the time,” she said. “Whether it’s gum or actual food, when there’s nothing in my mouth I always find myself preoccupied with filling it.”

When she told me that, at the time, I thought it just meant she was greedy. But after having to force myself not to reach for a snack just because the other day, I realized that this so-called addiction is more common than I thought.

I was literally sitting at my desk, typing away, when I felt an urge to snack on something. I knew that I was going to grab lunch within an hour or so, and had gone pretty HAM on a combination of peanuts and raisins just about 30 minutes before, so I was full. Stuffed actually. Still, I just needed to have something. Thankfully, one of my co-workers had some gum. But it was the kind that is more for teeth whitening than actual breath freshening or taste. So after about 15 minutes, nibbling on the gum was basically like chewing on silly putty. Minutes after spitting it out, that feeling arose within me again, and I was preparing to reach for some popcorn. It took everything in me to sit down somewhere. I literally let out a long grunt because I was so frustrated with my cravings.

My goodness, I thought. I am not hungry. Why can’t I stop snacking?!

“I’ve realized that two parts of the brain are largely to blame,” said Alex Korb, Ph.D., in a piece for Psychology Today, “the insula and the basal ganglia.”

Korb would go on to say that the insula is responsible for the process interoception, which makes you aware of your internal state, including what your stomach feels like.

“The problem is that it’s usually not a very specific signal, but more of a vague notion (e.g. ‘something seems to be a little off in my stomach area’). When we get a vague sensation about the stomach we often jump to the conclusion ‘Oh, I must be hungry’. But that’s not necessarily the case.”

As for the basal ganglia, it’s a combination of neurons in the brain that handle your habits.

“Snacking habits are ingrained in the basal ganglia through years of careful practice (those Pringles don’t eat themselves)” Korb said. “But your basal ganglia needs a trigger before it starts enacting a particular habit. In the case of snacking that trigger comes from the insula.”

We are out here convincing our own bodies that we’re hungry, even when that’s not the case. So that’s where that need to fill our mouths with something comes from. And while the idea of throwing a few things in your mouth here and there to appease your insula and basal ganglia seems harmless, those calories can add up pretty quickly.

What I’ve realized and what Korb pointed out in his piece is that you need to find a way to distract yourself from picking at and reaching for food for the sake of having something to chew on. Push yourself to eat for nourishment, not simply for enjoyment. Great alternatives to consistent snacking on the wrong things could include opting instead for water (infused water, with lemon or lime, is a must for me). If you feel that you really need to munch on something, sugarfree gum is low in calories and can satisfy a sugary craving. You might feel even more hungry after chewing, but if you can stall as you chew, when you finally spit your gum out, hopefully it will be time for lunch or dinner. And most importantly, when those cravings to snack are quite strong, avoid the foods that really get you in trouble. Once you see them, you’re likely to reach for them and feel disappointed later. The potato chips, the bowls of candy at the front desk, the entire cookie aisle, and the cupcakes you know they’re going to provide for your co-worker’s birthday should be avoided at all costs.

Incessant snacking definitely is somewhat of an addiction. At the base level, it’s a less than positive habit you’ve formed that makes you feel like you always need to eat, and can, in turn, contribute to weight loss struggles, an increase in your blood sugar and other health complications. But it’s also a mental thing, and if you force yourself to look into and integrate healthy habits like the alternatives mentioned above into your diet, you may finally be able to kick the unhealthy ones.

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