How to eat healthy when the munchies strike

Keep snacking under control.

snack foods
Make good food choices.Depositphotos

Fifty million American adults (most of them millennials) use marijuana, according to a 2017 Marist poll. That's a whole lot of people getting stoned—and often, getting the munchies, that almost-feral craving for foods that are salty, sweet, fatty, or all of the above.

If the urge to snack turns you into a Pac-Man—chomping your way through cookies, pizza rolls, and even that questionable-looking box of chocolate that’s been sitting in the back of your pantry for months—you can do something about it. Here are our best tips for damage control in the moment, and making healthier choices when you do blitz your pantry. And this advice applies whether or not you can blame your snacking on marijuana.

Why marijuana gives you the munchies

We don't need science to tell us that insatiable snacking can seriously derail our health goals. But it does explain why getting high turns your stomach into a bottomless pit, even if you've already eaten recently.

It's all thanks to cannabinoids, the active chemicals in marijuana. In particular, a compound called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is one of marijuana's main active ingredients, drives the munchies by binding to special cannabinoid receptors in our brain. This not only increases your appetite, but also makes food taste so darn good.

The exact scientific mechanisms of hunger are weird and complex, and it's interesting to note that the degree to which THC stimulates your appetite can depend on the method of consumption. For example, smoking pot might have a different effect than ingesting it or applying it topically. The differences in potency and rate of absorption may affect those cravings and even influence your preference for sweet, salty, sour, or bitter foods, according to this Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior study.

Regardless of whether you end up chowing down on candy or potato chips, a little munchies-indulgence can ruin your diet, and lead to health problems down the line. So what are we—as health-conscious, responsible marijuana-using citizens—to do in our time of compromised appetite control?

Set aside a "calorie budget"

Here's a counterintuitive idea: Plan to snack, rather than telling yourself that you shouldn't.

When the munchies hit, you’ll have an uphill battle to completely avoid highly palatable high-calorie foods. Make it easier on yourself by actually leaving a buffer in your daily caloric needs. If you’ve eaten less than usual, it leaves room for that giant slice of carrot cake, plate of queso and chips, or anything else your munchie-fueled heart longs for.

Registered dietitian (RD) Joshua Jedidiah Verduzco suggests preparing a sort of snack budget—based on your daily caloric needs and the current American recommendations for added sugar intake (no more than 10 percent of daily calorie needs)—to appease cravings while preventing weight gain. As an example, Verduzco says that if he has an estimated calorie intake of 2000 calories per day, he would set aside around 200 calories to "spend" on something that satisfies his sweet tooth. This way he can have his cake and literally eat it, too.

This rule can apply to anyone's habits. "If you know you're going to be somewhere with a high likelihood of snacking on things, and that you may have limited willpower when it comes to controlling snacking, limit your calories other times of the day," says registered dietician Sarah Ashman, who specializes in sports nutrition.

In other words, the day of your office holiday party, you should take care to eat lightly before and after the festivities. The logic is that a crazy snack binge does less damage when you’re not adding your indulgence-fest to a day that also included two or three heavy meals. Still, even with a treat budget, you won’t want to do this every day.

“This is obviously not something I recommend doing all the time,” says Ashman.

Keep healthier alternatives in the house

We know that chips, wings, and pizza detract from our health goals—but if we’re being realistic, very few people will nosh on celery sticks and apple slices with the same glee they exhibit while devouring cookies and ice cream.

Instead of swapping cake for carrots, look for healthy snack foods that provide the same sort of sensation that your favorite indulgence does. That way, they can satisfy cravings without delivering as many calories, says Ashman. Examples include sugar-free varieties of your snack. Here are some examples, based on a variety of cravings.

  • For crunch and sweetness: roasted nuts and seeds in some honey
  • For something savory: popcorn, lightly buttered (or my favorite: with furikake mix)
  • For chocolate fiends: squares of dark chocolate
  • To replace chips and dip: Greek yogurt with pretzels
  • For your sweet tooth: 1/2 cup of vanilla ice cream with fresh berries
  • For guilt-free noshing overall: cut fruits or vegetables dipped in a moderate amount of peanut butter or low-calorie dressing
  • For fizzy cravings: Zero-calorie or diet drinks, such as La Croix

The other thing to think about is the convenience of your snack choices.

Most junk food is quick, effortless to prepare, and convenient. Healthy snacks should be just as easy to consume. When you shop, look for pre-packaged or pre-portioned foods, such as pre-cut fruit, small bags of trail mix, or roasted vegetable chips.

“It’s actually your best strategy to ensure that healthy snacks are just as readily available and enjoyable as convenient junk foods,” says Verduzco.

Try non-food activities

If you want to reduce your eating episodes—or avoid snacking altogether—you might avoid people and events you associate with food. If you have a friend who encourages your bad habits, avoid hanging out with them when snacks are involved. If you know you’ll overeat at an office party, consider skipping it or leaving early.

Still, it’s not always possible to ditch your friends and family. So here are a couple tricks to potentially reduce your snacking.

  • Do something else altogether: When the munchies hit, Ashman suggests going for a walk, doing household chores (you know you need to eventually), or performing any other physical task. This can distract you from wanting to snack.
  • Drink water: Sometimes you might mistake a gurgling, thirsty stomach for hunger. Simply drinking more water can reduce appetite and cravings, says Ashman.
  • Consume slightly larger meals: You may snack because your meals are too small to keep you satiated. Try experimenting with the size and frequency of your meals to find that sweet spot.
  • Keep snacks out of sight: When tempting foods sit in plain sight, you're probably going to eat them. If you hide them or make them hard to access, you might stay glued to the couch instead.

Understand your cravings

Cravings are a very normal and natural phenomenon—whether or not they’re driven by the munchies.

"You cannot control when cravings emerge, but you can always control your response," says Verduzco.

Ashman suggests that when the urge to snack emerges, pause and notice where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re feeling the urge to snack.

“Many of us actually snack when we’re tired, bored, or stressed, and hunger has nothing to do with it,” she says. “If you’re using food as a crutch to get you through something, identifying that trigger is critical to preventing the behavior.”