Crossword Puzzles May Conquer Unhealthy Snacking

By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

Healthnotes Newswire (June 17, 2010)—For some of us, candy and potato chips seem to call out from the cupboard. Is there anything we can do to derail a snack attack? Researchers have found that sitting down with a fun activity, such as a crossword puzzle or magazine to read, or having a healthier snack instead, can keep us from these less healthy options.

From cucumber pieces to crossword puzzles

To examine different techniques for preventing unhealthy snacking, researchers invited 59 university students to participate in a study. Each student sampled and rated how pleasurable they found the following snack foods, healthy foods, and activities:

Snack foods

• M&M’s

• chocolate chip cookies

• gum

• potato chips

Healthy foods (bite-sized portions)

• cucumbers

• strawberries

• pineapple

• grapes


• reading popular magazines

• surfing the Internet

• solving Sudoku puzzles

• playing a computer game

For the seven-hour study, participants were able to earn points, which could then be traded in to obtain snack foods, healthy foods, or access to the fun activities. The effort to obtain these points was steadily increased for the snack foods, but not for the healthy foods or the activities.

Using this technique, the researchers were able to determine how much extra effort each person was willing to make to obtain the less healthy snack foods, given that less effort would provide a “reward” in the form of healthy food or an activity instead.

Resist restraining yourself

The study authors found that both the healthy foods and the activities were equally desirable as a substitute for the harder-to-earn snack foods. Another key finding focused on dietary restraint (the tendency to consciously limit the type and amount of food that you are eating). A person on a diet is an example of someone who has a high level of dietary restraint. The less healthy snack foods were more appealing and harder to resist for people with a high level of dietary restraint. When dieting, most people place some foods off limits. They restrain themselves from eating these foods at all and may therefore lead to more difficulty resisting “forbidden foods,” such as chocolate, cookies, and chips.

Master the munchies

To avoid struggling to resist tempting junk foods, the best approach may be moderation. Instead of forbidding yourself access to your favorite foods, allowing yourself some now and then (perhaps as a reward for a task you are putting off) may help keep you on track with your healthy eating habits the rest of the time. Buying just what you intend to eat at a given time, such as a small bag of chips or candy, is one way to do this. Avoid keeping your favorite snack foods around in large quantities so you won’t be tempted to go overboard.

Another useful trick is to find a substitute for snacking on less healthy foods. It doesn’t matter if the substitute is a healthy food or a fun activity. Simply steering yourself away from the junky snack foods will go a long way toward keeping your entire diet on a healthy track!

(Health Psych 2010; 29:222–6)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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