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Win the Battle Against Snacking

By Nancy Clark

"I know I shouldn't eat cookies, but I just can't help myself. I'm a cookie monster!" Sound familiar? Everyone knows that cookies (and candy, cakes, pies, ice cream, other sweets) offer suboptimal nutrition. But why are cookies so popular? Why do we eat monstrous portions that were not a part of our food intentions? 

Why? Because cookies (and other sweets) taste good. Because athletes — and all people, for that matter — who get too hungry tend to crave sweets. Most athletes believe cookies are the problem. I challenge that belief. I see cookies as being the symptom and getting too hungry as being the problem. That is, when you get too hungry, you experience a very strong drive to eat. Cookies!

Hunger, a Simple Request for Fuel 

Hunger is a very powerful physiological force that creates a strong desire to eat. When a child complains about being hungry, the parent readily provides food. But when athletes experience hunger, they either have "no time" to eat or, if weight-conscious, they fear food as being fattening; eating equates to getting fat. 

Most athletes eat without getting fat. Food, after all, is fuel. But cookie monster problems arise when time-deprived or dieting athletes consume inadequate fuel and hunger becomes the norm. The result is an abnormal physiological state known as starvation--or more commonly, known as being "on a diet." 

Although starvation is associated with famine in poor countries, starvation is also common among busy and dieting athletes. 

In 1950, Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota studied the physiology of starvation. They carefully monitored 36 young, healthy, psychologically normal men who for six months were allowed to eat only half their normal intake (similar to a very restrictive reducing diet). 

For three months prior to this semi-starvation diet, the researchers carefully studied each man's behaviors, personality, and eating patterns. They also observed the men for three to nine months of re-feeding. 

As the subjects' body weight fell, the researchers learned that many of the symptoms that might have been thought to be specific to binge eating were actually the result of starvation. 

The most striking change was a dramatic increase with food preoccupation. The hungry subjects thought about food all the time. They talked about it, read about it, dreamed about it, even collected recipes. They dramatically increased their consumption of coffee and tea, and chewed gum excessively. 

They became depressed, had severe mood swings, experienced irritability, anger and anxiety. They became withdrawn and lost their sense of humor. They had cold hands and feet, and felt weak and dizzy. 

During the study, some of the men were unable to maintain control over food; they would binge-eat if the opportunity presented itself--similar to "breaking a diet" or bingeing on cookies. 

When the study ended and the men could eat freely, many of them ate continuously--big meals followed by snacks. They ate and ate--like a cookie monster. So what can we learn about binge-eating from this study?

  1. Preoccupation with cookies (and sweets) indicates your body is too hungry. Hunger creates a strong physiological drive to eat.
  2. Cookie binges stem from starvation. If you are unable to stop eating once you start, you have likely gotten monstrously hungry (or are very stressed).
  3. Dieters who restrict to the point of semi-starvation are likely to "blow their diets" and consequently acquire some benefits: less hunger, cookies (and other sweets), and more energy.
Living Without Hunger

In our society, people live in hunger because the prevailing messages are "I don't have time to eat" and "food is fattening." 

Athletes believe the best way to lose weight is to severely restrict calories. The only opportunity dieters have to eat cookies (and other tasty foods) is when they "blow" their diets and turn into cookie monsters. But there is another way to manage cookies:

  1. Prevent hunger by eating enough at meals. You can lose weight by eating 10 to 20 percent fewer calories, not 50 percent fewer.
  2. Enjoy a cookie or two as a part of an overall healthful daily food plan.

To know how many calories (and cookies) you are entitled to eat to negate hunger and manage your weight, do this simple math.

  • Take your weight (or a good weight for your body) and multiply it by 10. This estimates your resting metabolic rate (RMR, the amount of energy you need to simply exist, pump blood, breathe, etc.). If you weigh 140 pounds, your RMR is about 1,400 calories -- the amount you'd burn if you were to run for 14 miles!
  • Add to your RMR about half that number for activities of daily living. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds and are moderately active (without your purposeful exercise), you need about 700 calories for daily living. Add fewer calories if you are sedentary.
  • Next, add calories for purposeful exercise. For example, a 140-pound person would need about 1,400 calories (RMR) + 700 (daily living) + 300 (for 30 minutes of exercise) = 2,400 calories to maintain weight.
  • To lose weight, deduct 20 percent, to about 1,900 calories. This translates into 600 calories for breakfast/snack, 700 for lunch/snack, and 600 for dinner/snack (or the equivalent of 11-13 Fig Newtons per section of the day.)

The next time you get into a cookie frenzy, use food labels to calculate your day's intake. You'll likely see a huge discrepancy between what you have eaten and what your body deserves. No wonder you are craving cookies! Once you recognize the power of hunger, you can take steps to prevent it by eating before you get too hungry.

Living With Cookies

If you like cookies too much--to the extent you have trouble stopping eating them once you start -- the way to take the power away from cookies is to eat them more often (in appropriate portions) and not try to "stay away from them." 

Apples likely have no "power" over you because you give yourself permission to eat an apple whenever you want. But cookies will have power over you if you routinely restrict them. By enjoying a cookie with every lunch, you'll start to want fewer cookies. They will lose their appeal and the cookie monster will rest in its cage, peacefully.

Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels casual and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, new Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist’s Food Guide are available at Also see www.sportsnutritionworkshop.comfor information about her online workshop.

This article originally appeared on — your source for event information, training plans, expert advice, and everything you need to connect with the sport you love. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.