I’m not hungry, so why am I eating?

By Lucy Braude, Clinical Psychologist

We eat for so many reasons, and hunger is only one of them. Breaking the habit of eating when you are not hungry can be tricky. The first step is to understand why this is happening for you, so you can work out what to do instead.

Sometimes, a health professional may encourage you to eat even when you are not hungry to establish a regular eating routine to get your hunger signals working properly. This is perfectly okay. But, if you are trying to eat according to hunger and are struggling, here are some of the main reasons that non-hungry eating happens:

1. Difficult emotions
How many times have you found yourself inspecting the pantry, bored in the evening? Or reaching for a biscuit to avoid a difficult phone call? Feelings like boredom, anxiety or loneliness can all lead to what we call ‘emotional eating’ or ‘comfort eating’. Unfortunately, this tends to worsen the situation by leaving you feeling (even) worse. The key is to find other ways to deal with these feelings. That could mean acknowledging and validating your feelings, chatting to a friend about it, finding a fun distraction or writing down potential solutions to a problem you are trying to ignore.

2. Breaking a food rule: the all or nothing trap
Sometimes, eating a treat such as a biscuit or chocolate bar can be met with feelings of guilt or frustration. When this happens, it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking “Oh well, today is ruined. Tomorrow I’ll start eating healthy again”. Unfortunately, this type of “all of nothing” thinking leads us to use one treat as permission to continue eating. Catching these thoughts when they pop up is important here, as this gives us a chance to question how helpful or true it is to write the whole day off after a single treat (not very!).

3. I’m exhausted!
Fatigue often causes people to crave delicious and high calorie sweets. This is due to the hormonal changes that occur with sleep deprivation. Making sure you prioritise sleep and sleep well is important to combat this trigger. Creating a bed time routine, and avoiding stimulation and caffeine before bed can help. If you have chronic sleep difficulty, it is worth discussing this with your GP or healthcare professional.

4. Habit
That mid-afternoon snack break, morning coffee or a glass of wine after dinner…these are all common eating routines we fall into. Developing (healthy) habits is not a bad thing of course, however, it can put us into “auto-pilot” mode, where we are eating or drinking without considering hunger. Try to check in before having any food or drink, to assess whether you are actually hungry.

5. Peer pressure
We have all experienced social pressure to eat something we may not have particularly wanted. Perhaps it was your colleague’s birthday cake, second helpings at your friend’s dinner party or “just a bite” of the slice your mother-in-law baked. This is difficult to navigate because people typically fear being seen as rude. Ask yourself – is it really rude to say no in this context? Would I be offended if someone declined what I was offering? It may help to have some prepared phrases you can respond with. Try: “Thank you so much, it looks delicious but I just ate”, or “I don’t feel like it right now, but I’d love to take some home for my kids”.

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