Healthy fast food snacks and decision fatigue - What you need to know

Healthy fast food snacks and decision fatigue - What you need to know

Have you decided that you need to make a lifestyle change in relation to the food that you eat? Some people can just make this change (they wake up, decide, and get it done) - that is not most of us. We need to recognize and understand that for many of us, this will be a journey.  To succeed we need to understand where the challenges are, and plan for success. 


I recommend that the complete lifestyle overhaul should be put off until tomorrow.  It is good to start with small focused steps.

Let's think about snacks. If we can make some changes in the snacks that we eat,  we will have made a significant improvement in the nutrition value of our food content.  This change can begin to improve our physical health, and help in our efforts to maintain a balanced weight (which is important for reducing our risk of dementia and other chronic diseases).  

To develop a new habit, in this case, in relation to food habits which involve body cravings and mental processes, we are relying on willpower in the first weeks (and maybe months) of integrating this new habit into our life. At least the first 21 days we will be experience significant sapping willpower as we try to change our old habit and create a new habit. 

Decision fatigue will be a major factor during these early days of establishing a new habit as willpower will be utilised extensively, therefore it is essential to reduce the number of decisions that are being made, both in relation to the new habit (by forward planning), and in other areas of your life (don't start a new habit while exploring a new area on holidays). Start establishing your new habit during the week, rather than on a weekend. 

WHY DURING THE WEEK FIRST? This is because new habits take time to become grounded in our life.  We have a tendency to revert back to our most fundamental habits when under stress, around people who don't share our habits, or if we are tired. 

We should start by building our  new habits in places where we have less reliance on willpower (where there is routine like home life and work) and then move into areas with less structure (like parties and socializing). In this way we are maximising the time when decision fatigue is not impacting our choices as much. 

Weekdays tend to have more structure than weekends.   It is harder to maintain any significant lifestyle changes when we interact with friends if they don't support our new habits, or practice similar habits. 

TO SNACK OR NOT TO SNACK, THAT MAY BE THE QUESTION.  I'm not going to dive into the nutrition focused discussion of whether we should snack or not. That debate should be put off until tomorrow, to discuss with people more committed to 'no snacks' than me. Suffice to say, the calorie content of our day's worth of food (and the nutritional value) is the sum total contribution to our food health that day.  If you choose to snack, there is a note of caution -

  1. Research has shown that often people who snack a lot throughout the day, are not always adjusting their meal portion sizes down to accommodate the extra food eaten between meals (meaning they end up eating too many calories than required to be healthy).
  2. Secondly, snacks aren't always the healthiest aspect of our daily food intake, so if we have a problem with calories or nutrition it is likely we are making errors in the snack area of our eating plan. 

These two reasons are why taking a closer look at our snacks has immediate benefit for our health. 

HOW CAN THIS HELP YOU? We need to think about reducing our main meal sizes if we like to snack, and making sure that our snacks contribute good nutrition (and not too many calories) to our daily food consumption. We can do that by systematically approaching a change in our snacking habits.

To make an effective change in our snacking habits we need to look at:

  • Current snacking habits (timing)
  • Personal snacking drivers
  • What kind of snacks are the favourites?
  • Replacing current favourite snacks with suitable (fantastic) alternatives
  • Ensuring alternatives are available when needed

STEP 1: Keep a snack journal for two weeks.  Identify personal snacking habits. We are all unique. This journal can be on a phone or paper. It can be as easy as taking a photo of every piece of food that is eaten, every day for two weeks (that's scary). Snacking changes depending on the location (work, home, weekends), so track the times and the price if purchased away from home (snacking is expensive). When I first realised that I bought a chocolate bar every time I went past a newsagent or into a service station I couldn't believe how much I was spending. The habit was so ingrained that I had stopped noticing that I was buying the chocolate - it wasn't when I was hungry. 

STEP 2: Work out what is driving the snacking. Does it appear to be hunger, habit, boredom, convenience, the sight of food, socializing?

STEP 3: What kind of snacks appear to be required? I absolutely have to have chocolate. Then every now and then I branch out for something really different - chocolate chip cookies, or chocolate coated licorice (really different, right). If I'm tired, or don't feel well, it needs to be hot chips. 

STEP 4: Create a list of what can be replaced, swapping poor nutrition and high calorie snacks for better options; and ensuring that these snacks are available at the time and place they are needed.  I found a nutritional system that had healthy chocolates, chocolate shakes, chocolate bars. I learnt how to use the chocolate protein shake powder to make chocolate ice cream and chocolate protein balls. (Did I mention I LOVE chocolate?)  

Over time, my tastes actually broadened out a bit, I do eat a few different snacks now, like oat cookies, mandarins, and even hommus  (though chocolate seems to be the main stayer). It's interesting how when you don't force yourself to make a change, change sometimes just happens. 

Be realistic.  Snacking is a habit. We know what we like. It takes time for  your taste buds to change, and for your mind to catch up.

  • We don't always need food when we want a snack (sometimes we are bored or thirsty). Always have a drink first (preferably water) and delay eating the snack by doing something else first. Don't say 'no', say 'I'll just do this'.  If you still need the snack later, that's fine. 
  • It is best to be realistic about what our tastes are in the beginning. If you like hot snacks, sweet snacks, chocolate snacks - late at night, early in the morning, straight after lunch or on the drive home. Make sure your snack replacement fits what you love. 
  • A key step in making a switch to a healthy lifestyle is to switch out unhealthy snacks to a healthier choice - don't pretend that the chocolate chip cookie is going to be replaced by a salad of kale if cold leaves were never your thing. Find the healthy version of the chocolate chip cookie and eat the right quantity of them, and you will be on your way.

Eating with our friends. Research has shown that we tend to eat like our friends. Take a look around. When starting to make a change, it is easier if that change is made with others who are doing the same thing. If you are the last in your group to be making the 'healthy' switch, it won't be so hard to change your snacking habits, as it will be if you are the first in your group.  The world is changing to a healthier place which makes it easier for us - You may be noticing a trend where healthier options are being served at staff parties, conferences,  children's parties and sometimes the rugby. Once your eyes are open, it starts to become a fun challenge...who has the best healthy fast food snacks?

ARE THERE HEALTH FACTORS HERE? Good food powers our body for the activities we do each day. It also helps our body to eliminate waste and to operate the way it was designed. When we eat food that is mostly nutritionally poor, we are starving our body of the power it needs. This may also lead to over eating and weight issues as your body keeps asking for more power. Chronic illness such as obesity, diabetes and dementia have been linked to the food that we eat. The choices we make each day, however small, can start to make a difference to our long term health. 

If you are ready for a bigger step than just snacks, I'd love to chat with you about that as well.

A WAY FORWARD.  The key has seemed to me, to take away the decision making process. Making decisions each time you are hungry via an internal battle can contribute to decision fatigue and failure. We need a system and a plan to help match our new habit. 

I've compiled a list, with a bit of help from my friends, with suggestions, of healthy fast food snacks (because fast food is great). If you love snacks, for now - don't pretend you aren't going to snack.  Work out some good alternatives and have those laying around - Ready when you need them.  Take a look at this list if you would like some ideas like fruit, yogurt, or nuts. I love getting my snacks delivered to my door as part of my nutrition system - which means I love chocolate, bars and protein chips (more about that here).

What is your favorite healthy fast food snack? Let me know in the comments below. 

Photo Credit

Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash