In college, I developed a habit of snacking while writing. Cheese crackers, stolen cereal from the dining hall and pretzels fueled most of the papers I wrote as a Wellesley student.
This habit is particularly unfortunate given that I now write for a living—and it’s compounded by the fact that my office building offers an unlimited supply of free snacks. Sure, there’s fruit, but there are also dispensers filled with pretzel nuggets, dark chocolate M&Ms, popcorn and rice crackers.
So when my editor challenged me to totally abstain from eating the free junk food in our office for a week, I foolishly decided to take her up on it.
Before taking the challenge, I talked with registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick to better understand why so many of us snack mindlessly.
“There’s a few obvious things: Boredom, dehydration and stress,” she says.
Free workplace snacks are particularly appealing. “There’s a social aspect,” says Kirkpatrick. “If everyone else is there eating M&Ms and you’re not participating, there’s that groupthink: ‘Oh, everyone else is doing it; I should, too.’”
My goal for the rest of the week was to completely abstain from the available junky snacks. And while I’m proud to say that I succeeded, I’m not proud to admit that it was way harder than I had thought. And I apologize to my cubemates for any snack-related complaining—but in my defense, I was hangry.
If you’re considering your own snack cleanse, here are some important things to keep in mind:
1. Breakfast is actually the most important meal of the day
Kirkpatrick stressed the importance of eating a filling, protein-rich breakfast, like eggs or Greek yogurt. “Having protein at breakfast typically goes hand-in-hand with having less cravings and less hunger during the day,” she said. After all, if you’re full, you’re less likely to reach for something to munch on.
Sure, it may seem a little obvious. But 31 million Americans still skip breakfast—including 18% of women ages 18-34. So I took Kirkpatrick’s advice to heart and loaded up on a protein-rich breakfast each morning.
My go-to options were either an English muffin with peanut butter (no, not whole-wheat because whole-wheat anything is sad and disappointing to me) or oatmeal with bananas and peanut butter. Because I do not have time to make eggs on a weekday.
While I’ve always been a big believer in breakfast, this regimen actually kept me full for the whole morning every single day—even though I used to feel hungry as early as 11 a.m.
2. Drinking water will help cut cravings—but there are consequences
Another key to avoiding snacks: Drinking water. “People confuse dehydration for hunger, and it’s really easy to get dehydrated at work,” says Kirkpatrick. She recommended having a water bottle or glass of water with me at my desk all day.
I figured with this one that I would drink water all day—extra when cravings hit. So during that post-lunch slump when my energy was flagging and my work was starting to pile up—a.k.a. prime snack time—I was all about my big glass of water. I would take a big sip. And another. And another.
I required a lot of water in place of snacks.
By the end of each day, I had consumed four enormous cups of water. Sure, this helped, but there was a downside: I was going to the bathroom basically every 30 minutes. Who has time to pee that much? Perhaps I should just set up an office in there to save time on back-and-forth trips.
Read more: 4 Ways to Gain an Extra Hour Every Day
3. Healthy snacks actually can be satisfying—really!
Kirkpatrick also instructed me to snack on alternatives high in fiber, protein or healthy fats—like almonds or apples with nut butters. They’d keep me full longer and were more nutritious options than my usual mélange of M&Ms and pretzels.
I spent most of the challenge just avoiding all snacks, but I figured that I had to try a snack alternative at some point. So on the third day of the challenge, I took roughly two tablespoons of natural peanut butter and one apple (portion control! I’m learning!) from the office kitchen.
It was my first time snacking all week—and my first time since starting this job two months prior that I chose a snack that didn’t include M&Ms (yes, I’m a paragon of health). Sure, what I chose was definitely not as delicious as a handful of chocolate candy. But what I really needed in a snack was something to crunch on, and the apple did the trick. I didn’t miss my usual snack choice too much. Progress?
4. No one solution works for everyone
I had a three-part strategy for resisting snacks: Having a filling breakfast, staying hydrated and eating healthy snack replacements. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Kirkpatrick warned I might have to try different tricks to find something that would work for me. “Some people just need to go to the bathroom and brush their teeth, or eat gum,” she said. “You might need some sort of distraction, which might look different for everyone—walking outside, getting coffee, physically leaving your desk.”
The things I tried worked pretty well for me, but I know they might not be as effective for everyone. After all, we all have different brains and are motivated by different things.
5. Learning to adapt your habits takes time
I’m happy to say that, in the time that’s elapsed since Snack Out 2016, I haven’t felt the need to munch so often. Sure, every once in a while I’ll treat myself to a pile of crackers or a large cupcake. But less often than before and in smaller quantities. And that’s O.K., says Kirkpatrick. “You might not be able to resist every day, but if you’re doing less and less, then that’s progress,” she says.
That said, I have no shame in admitting that, at the end of a long day, I’ll still take a handful of those M&Ms on the way out of the office. After all, I’m only human.
Author’s Note: This piece was written while lightly snacking.