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Why mindless snacking might be messing with more than just your diet

The clock reads 9:37 a.m. Is it too early to eat a Snickers? “Just buy it now and save it for the long afternoon. It’ll be a reward for getting through that big meeting,” I unconvincingly tell myself. I hit the vending machine, and the whole candy bar is gone by the time I return to my desk.

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This scenario is not new. My dentist and I both agree that my sweet tooth is a bully that always gets the best of me at work. It corners me at all hours with the smallest excuse or craving. It convinces me to skip the carrots and hummus I packed from home, opting to pour my gas money into sugary snacks and soda instead. It’s always been easier to control my eating habits at home; I can stock my pantry with healthy snack options like fresh fruits and veggies, and avoid any deep-fried or sugary temptations. The workplace, however, is my kryptonite. I, unfortunately, developed a habit of using food as a reward for finishing stressful work. After completing any task at all (as minor as responding to an email) my brain feels programmed to expect a treat from the office vending machine or a snack from one of the fast food chains that pepper the landscape on my commute home. It’s even worse when a generous coworker surprises the staff with morning doughnuts or mid-afternoon cookies. These surprise junk food attacks always elicit a “carpe diem” response. They only happen every so often, so why not indulge?

Last year, my poor eating habits at work got so extreme that I began to no longer enjoy my morning Snickers. All the junk food made me sluggish, triggered my IBS, negatively impacted my mood, and unleashed a battlefield of adult acne all over my face. As soon as I finished one candy bar, I moved on to my next processed prey. The more junk I ate, the more I craved and the worse I felt. I tried to quit cold turkey at first, but I was back at Old Faithful, my trusty vending machine, by 2 p.m. Salads just couldn’t compare with the satisfying crunch of Cooler Ranch Doritos. I needed an actionable, step-by-step plan to truly break the habit. (Spoiler alert: my plan worked, but it wasn’t easy.) First, I researched my sugar addiction and scared myself into committing to a healthy diet through reading some of its damaging side effects on the body. Then I hit Pinterest to find some healthy snack ideas; I pinned a great article that includes easy ideas like freezing grapes to replace candy. Fun recipes pumped up my enthusiasm. Sure, I could snack on celery and peanut butter, but why not add some excitement to the mix by making Greek yogurt breakfast bark, too? I wondered, what made clean eating easy at home but more challenging for me in the office? It all comes down to having options. So I began prepping different workplace snacks and lunch options at home every night. If the weekend isn’t busy, I’d prep everything on Sunday and bring in a whole smorgasbord on Monday. With more variety, I feel less backed into a corner when the sweet tooth bully shows up during a mid-afternoon slump.

Drinking more water throughout the day has also helped get my cravings under control. Symptoms of dehydration mimic hunger, so sometimes I’ll drink a big glass of water alongside or in place of a snack. This habit has provided much more energy than any of Dr. Pepper’s twenty-three flavors could offer. While all of these tricks worked, a huge piece of the junk food habit puzzle is mental for me. I had conditioned myself to expect treats as rewards for my work. This was the hardest habit to break. Meditation was crucial in bringing about a real life change. It’s so easy to backslide, to tell myself that one box of Oreos is well-deserved and ultimately harmless (ignoring the fact that I treat myself every day). Meditation first served as an important distraction; as soon as I began the mental process of considering a processed snack, I instead launched a meditation exercise requiring my complete attention. It helped push the plastic-wrapped temptation out of my mind and put my goals back into perspective. My mindset and cravings have been reset; I actually like carrots and hummus now. There are still days when I pay a visit to the old vending machine, but only sparingly. I don’t feel chained to it anymore. Changes in eating habits have altered my outlook on work. I am more alert and positive, with a steadier stream of energy that extends into personal life after leaving the office. And the next time Linda from accounting brings in cookies, I’ll treat myself to one (instead of ten).

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