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Why We Eat When We Are Not Hungry

Updated on June 17, 2016
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes extensively on health, social issues, mental illness, disabilities, and other topics. She is a breast cancer survivor.

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Reasons people overeat:

  • They are using food to cope with emotions: Feelings such as being angry, stressed, lonely, sad, or fearful are powerful triggers to overeat
  • They are distracted, i.e. having a conversation while eating a family meal, sitting in front of a TV
  • Other people are eating
  • People are seeking self-gratification such as experiencing pleasure and the satisfaction of food cravings
  • They want to alleviate their boredom
  • They want to celebrate special occasions
  • They are tired
  • The clock says they should eat
  • Food is available and visible
  • Food is cheap or free
  • They can't say no to people who push food on them
  • They feel they need to eat everything off of their plates

Every time we sit in front of a TV or computer, we are bombarded with advertising that tempts us to eat delicious products. When we walk through a mall, all kinds of convenient foods such as chocolate and potato chips seem to beckon us, even if we are not hungry. The food court has enticing smells that promise a tasty treat and emotional satisfaction to customers. So we cave in and mess up our diet plan.

Overeating triggers

So why do we eat even though we are not hungry? There are several factors that may trigger our appetite.

These triggers must be dealt with in order to prevent the overeating that leads to obesity and health problems. People who eat when they are not hungry may have poorer physical health overall than people who only eat when they are hungry.

Researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab did a study in which they asked 45 undergraduate students to rate their hunger levels and then asked them to consume a meal rich in carbohydrates.

People who are moderately hungry before the meal tended to have lower blood glucose levels after eating than those who were not moderately hungry.

Types of eating

There are several types of eating that get us into trouble.

Binging: Being able to eat healthy portions at some times and at other times, and overeating large amounts of food at other times is called binge eating. The foods eaten are often not healthy and bad for us, especially if we have diabetes.

Emotional: Some of us react to negative emotions by eating. These urges usually don 't last more than 10 minutes to an hour, so we can distract ourselves until the emotion dies down by becoming active, such as going for a 10 minute walk around the block.

Comfort and pleasure:
Sometimes we soothe ourselves after a bad day at work or after an argument with a family member. We may use food to avoid difficult situations and the negative feelings that come with them. The feelings of comfort and pleasure at the food’s taste after self-indulgence may be replaced by feelings of guilt about giving in to temptation.

Eating as a reward: Some people reward themselves for sticking to a healthy diet with food. A treat now and then is OK, but rewards should not involve food.

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Nighttime: A healthy snack such as plain popcorn, a piece of fruit, vegetables, cheese and crackers, a cup of low fat cottage cheese or whole-wheat toast with a little jam a few hours after dinner is OK.

Nighttime eating becomes a problem however, if a lot of food or food high in sodium, saturated fat, and calories such as chips, cookies, ice cream, leftovers, or sandwiches. Eating the most calories during the day will combat the urge to overeat in the evening.

Forced eating: Sometimes we feel compelled to eat even though they are not hungry. We think we should consume something because:

  • The food is there in front of us such as a candy bowl at work
  • Someone offered it to us
  • Other people are eating around us and may be pressuring us to eat to be a part of the group
  • We are bored
  • We want a distraction from what we should be doing
  • We do not want to waste leftovers
  • Someone took the trouble to cook or bake something especially for us so we feel obligated and do not want to offend them

We can thank people’s offers and state that we are not hungry, or take one or two bites to be polite.

Strategies to avoid overeating

  • Eat at least three meals a day so you do not get too hungry at night
  • Be more mindful, question why you want to eat certain foods
  • Put away foods that may tempt you
  • Pace yourself by eating more slowly and putting your fork down after every bite
  • Do not keep binge foods at home such as candy bars, ice cream, or chips
  • Resist the urge to eat everything off your plate
  • Have smaller portions of food and drink, if possible on smaller plates and glasses

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  • Do a physical activity you enjoy or take a walk for at least 10 to 15 minutes
  • Talk to a friend about emotional issues that may trigger a trip to the fridge
  • Do activities such as reading, playing with pets or kids, listening to music, doing crafts, or having a long bath
  • Do physical work such as cleaning house or gardening
  • Get enough sleep

We can overcome the urge to overeat by taking a second look at our habits. We need to know our triggers and the reasons why we may eat when we are not hungry.

© 2016 Carola Finch

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  • marieryan profile image

    Marie Ryan 7 weeks ago from Andalusia, Spain

    You have given an amazing amount of very good advice.

    Thank you so much.

  • Fenn Rirr profile image

    Fenn Rirr 17 months ago

    I used to drink a lot of soda when I was a postgraduate student, especially after a stressful day at the lab. Junk food and cheeseburgers were my avenue to release my frustrations from getting a string of experimental results that didn't make sense. Luckily, I was still in a good shape on my graduation day!

    This is a great Hub, as it resonates with my attitude towards food until today.