Is picking and nibbling really that damaging?


You are walking through the office mid-morning, not feeling particularly hungry and there’s some biscuits and sweets left on one of the desks because its someone’s birthday, absentmindedly you help yourself to a couple of treats.

It’s tea time, you are starving, but you are preparing the kids meal before your own, so you pinch a couple of pieces of whatever they are having as you dish up.

You start preparing your own evening meal and you nibble mindlessly on the raw ingredients, probably eating an extra couple of hundred grams of anything edible that you have got your hands on.

You’re going to make a hot drink, and mindlessly take a handful of ‘something’ from the fridge and nibble whilst you finish making your drink.

This type of behaviour actually has a specific term, in the study of eating behaviours. The term is ‘Picking and Nibbling’.  It has a definition too: ‘eating behaviour characterised by eating in an unplanned and repetitious manner in between meals and snacks’.

Meals and snacks tend to be planned eating occasions. We have set breakfast, lunch and dinner times, and probably 2 or 3 planned snacking occasions. We plan our meals and we more often than not, plan our snacks. We have control of these and they are more than likely planned to stay within our calorie allowances.  But what we don’t plan for, and therefore probably don’t count or have any comprehension of what we are consuming, is what we pick at.

‘Picking and Nibbling’ is actually an emerging area in the study of eating behaviours and eating disorders.  It is thought that excessive picking and nibbling can lead to binges, for those who suffer with Binge Eating Disorder.   However, for those with disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, it is less prevalent – probably because those suffering with these diseases exercise a lot of control over their food.

Research shows it is also common in bariatric surgery patients who regain weight after surgery, and does impact on attempts to lose weight.  In effect it shows a loss of control of eating.

This lack of control, could be where we are going wrong if we aren’t seeing the success that we expect to see.

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What do we pick at? Where do we pick? When do we do it?

I pick in various ways… When I am getting the milk out of the fridge for a cup of tea, I might pick at anything that is open and in an edible state.

I dip into the Nutella jar, when I am getting tea bags out of the cupboard (so much so that I have now had to move the jar away from the tea bags to stop me doing it).

I used to pick at biscuits and sweets every time I passed the ‘treat table’ in my old office.  Luckily Rick and I don’t have a treat table, and don’t bring treats into Be Strong HQ, so that has stopped that one.

I pick at the kid’s tea when I am dishing up, then finish off anything they (or my husband, for that matter) hasn’t eaten. I pick at garlic bread, if its left on the serving plate after a meal. Garlic Bread is totally my downfall!

I also can’t resist pinching crisps or sweets off the kids when they are eating them.

You might pick at slices of cheese or meat in the fridge, or nibble at the components of your own meal when you are dishing up, but don’t reduce the amount that goes on your plate.  You might keep going back to the biscuit barrel for another and another, but not count them as a proper snack. You might just eat that last slice of bread, before you throw the bag away, or the crusts off the kids sandwiches, or that corner of toast that they leave. And you justify it as not wanting to waste food and throw it away.

These acts of picking and nibbling, are totally mindless and uncontrolled. And, that’s absolutely fine, if you are in a position where you are comfortable with your weight, you are losing at the rate that you want, and generally speaking you feel like you are in control of your food and it doesn’t bother you.

If, however, you are feeling like you aren’t getting the results you expect, and you know that you have a tendency to pick totally uncontrollably, then this could be an area for you to focus on.

If you think about it these are the calories that we aren’t counting, so as an example I might eat 2 chocolate digestives biscuits (160), handful of grapes (60), couple of strips of a chocolate bar (160) totalling 380 calories – that’s what I am aware that I am picking at!  What about the food I am not aware that I am eating.  That 380 calories, if I am only on a deficit of 600 is over half of my deficit just blown! So would explain why I might only lose ½ pound a week.

What if I ate, 5 or 6 chips and a chicken nugget off the kids tea, and a slice of bread out the end of the bag, oh and a handful of crisps out of a family bag and a few sweets here and there, then that dip in the Nutella jar before bed.  That might be another 400-500 calories there too!

Pretty soon, I am losing my deficit completely, and possibly getting into the realms of over eating, and you can see its easily done. What I have listed there, doesn’t particularly look like a lot of ‘picking’ and certainly not hugely out of control.  But when you add it all up, if I am trying really hard to get a calorie deficit of at least 600 calories, by eating really good, tasty meals and snacks that are within my calorie allowance, the picking has just completely undone all my hard work.

How do we tackle this behaviour?

This isn’t going to be easy, and it is going to take a lot of mental strength, because these acts are mindless, we do them without thought, and without even realising it sometimes, until we have swallowed what we put in our mouths.  But there are some steps we can take to minimise the frequency at which we pick and the types of foods we pick at.

  1. Raise your awareness of when you might be picking at food – look for your triggers and come up with a plan to get around it.  Add up honestly, what you are picking and nibbling at, the shock maybe enough to make you stop!
  2. Plan snack times for just before the times where you might be vulnerable to picking, so that you feel satisfied and less likely to pick – so for instance, if you know you pick when preparing food, plan your snack for just before you start prep, and have a glass of water with you when prepping food, so you can sip that instead of putting the food in your mouth.
  3. If you pick because you eat later than the rest of your family – can you all eat together? or could you sit down and have a planned and calorie counted snack while they are eating their meal?
  4. Always have a bottle of water handy, to sip when you are bored, to stop you going on the hunt for things to eat.
  5. Stop buying the foods that you pick at. If you have to buy the foods that you pick at, can you put them in a less prominent place, so that you don’t see it as frequently – out of sight, out of mind. This is what I do with the Nutella jar.
  6. Engage your brain and put all of your mental strength and energy into stopping that behaviour. As soon as you recognise that you are eating something you hadn’t planned to eat; the kid’s leftovers or the heel of the loaf – stop! Put it back in the fridge or cupboard, feed it to the dog or simply throw it in the bin.
  7. Have a look at the Trio program, which removes all snacking and just gives you three good meals a day, it could be a game changer for you!

Take action!

Ask yourself, do you pick at foods? And, is it affecting your chances of success? If the answer is no to either of those questions, then carry on as you are. If the answer is yes, particularly to the second question, this is something else you can try, another weapon in your armoury to further your journey towards your goal.

If you have any other strategies to stop you picking and nibbling, tell us in the comments!

6 replies on “Is picking and nibbling really that damaging?”

Thanks for this article I’ve started a little nibbling at weekends I’m going to stop doing it it’s just the odd packet of crisps may be a treat now and again I don’t eat sweet things crisp are my down fall xx

This was a very good read think I am going right down on the things that I don’t track and see how much external I have and see if this could have an in pack or if I have got control it is very easily done and never really thought about it like this it really makes yo think x

I’m a bugger for this, having little tastes when I’m making a meal or carving a chicken & those odd chips I pinch when I’m not having them. Going to make an effort to track them & have lower calorie snacks made up ready to go like fruit jars, mini quiches, boiled eggs, mini cucumbers.

Treat tables in offices are the DEVIL aren’t they Dianne!!

I definitely have to remind myself regularly Jo about picking and nibbling, and rein it back in a bit x

I’ve stopped buying sweets, chocolate, cakes and biscuits other than at Christmas or similar. My main existing threats are cashew nuts and crisps as I think there be a divorce if I took these away. He puts up with everything else. I struggle with ignoring the cashew nuts so we have agreed to 1 bag at weekend only and I count the calories. With crisps, he likes Seabrooks and I buy those but also Walkers French Fries. He has his and I have a bag of French fries as they are low in calories. Again counted.
I’m not a big picker or nibbler now I don’t work….. the work cake table was incredible and a real issue for me.

Thanks for reminding me about picking and nibbling , somehow it always creeps back in, definitely going to print out the knowledge sheet ?????

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