You know you're not hungry, but you still keep going back to the kitchen to look through the refrigerator and cabinets for something to eat. Or maybe you casually walk past the vending machine in the office to see if something looks good. Eating when you're not hungry could be a sign of many things. Cravings, boredom and plain old bad habits are often the most common reasons.
The 4 Big Reasons Why You Want to Eat When You're Not Hungry
Here are a few tips to help detour you away from eating (or eating a lot less) when your body doesn't need the food!
This is a lot of information, and I hope you take a moment to read through it. The 4th reason is MOST LIKELY what's happening to you.
It's almost always the reason my clients had uncontrollable cravings.
1) The Mindless Eater
Sometimes we just pick up foods that are in our line of sight whether we're hungry or not. The old adage is true: out of sight, out fo mind. When you're mindessly eating, you're eating because something appeals to your senses. Whether it's a big bowl of sugary candy sitting out on your countertop, or a bowl of chips at party, the seemingly inconsequential "grab" of a handful here or a handful there actually adds up to several hundred calories of food that's typically void of anything good for your body!
Mindless eating is often times a habit. Because you're not hungry, you don't have hormones like insulin (your fat-storage hormone) or ghrelin (your hunger hormone) dictating you to eat.
Here are a few tips to help get you on track:
- The obvious: keep food that's tempting to you out of your sight. In most cases, this means keeping food off the counter, and in cupboards, drawers or pantries.
- Have a go-to snack when you catch yourself about to eat a handful of something. Eating something full of nutrition, like a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts, is always better than a bowl of chips.
- Recognize the times of day you're more likely to graze on food. Plan to occupy your time with something else around that time, like going for a walk, taking time to write out a to-do list, or reading.
2) The Dessert After Dinner Person
Eating before you go to sleep can throw off your insulin levels, increasing hunger when you wake up in the morning, and subsequently throughout the day. Think of insulin as your "fat storage hormone." When we throw off insulin at bedtime, we're also throwing off other important hormones, like human growth hormone (HGH), which helps our body repair and metabolize fat. If you have a gut full of food, insulin needs to take over, taking top dog over HGH.
When you cut back on eating before bed, you'll not only manage your hunger and cravings, but you'll feel much more energized the next day.
Anytime you eat in a way that makes this hormone work overtime, your body will pay for it. PRO TIP: Don't eat 3 hours (or less) before bedtime. If you have to eat later, make the meal smaller, and make sure what you eat is higher in protein.
3) The Emotional Eater
It's easy to say, "go for a walk," or "read a book" when you start feeling emotional or stressed and need a distraction from eating when you're not hungry, but that doesn't always work for everyone, does it?
The only thing worse than emotional eating - and this comes from a former emotional eater - is eating foods that actually add to the stress or emotional already being felt! Here are a few foods or drinks you can reach for without making yourself feel more stressed.
- 2 squares of a good dark chocolate (not milk chocolate)
- 1/2 cup plain low fat or full fat yogurt (not fat free) with berries + a little honey
- As many vegetables as you'd like with 2 - 3 ounces of hummus (this is a great recipe)
- 3 cups air popped popcorn with coconut oil on it
- 2 hard boiled eggs
- Camomile or another herbal tea with a little honey in it
All of these foods have some great nutritional value to them. The dark chocolate is filled with an army of nutrients, yogurt is a good source of probiotics, which help your gut and mood, hummus and veggies are a great source of fiber, protein and a little fat, popcorn with coconut oil is a great way to get fiber and a fat call medium chain triglyceride, eggs are a convenient way to get more protein and fat, and herbal tea is an easy way too ease tension while getting great flavor.
4) The Legitimately Hungry After Eating Person
What the heck is going on? You ate literally an hour ago and the meal was pretty big, or at least big enough that you shouldn't be snooping around for something to eat.
This is actually the least psychological reason, but most physiological reason for eating too much, or at all the wrong time!
Unlike the reasons mentioned above, this one is different. You're probably hungry - not just craving something. It doesn't mean you can't control it. Let's take a closer look.
Two things could be happening here:
- Your Gut Bacteria Could Be Off Our gut needs a good balance of beneficial bacteria to ward off the bad bacteria. When our gut doesn't have enough beneficial bacteria, we can develop cravings that make our bad bacteria grow - like sugary foods.And did you know that most of our body's neurotransmitters are made in our gut? Neurotransmitters like serotonin, so it's not surprising that when our gut is in an unhealthy place, our mood, motivation and desire to eat healthy follows. Read more about the gut-brain connection here.
You can improve your gut bacteria by:
- Cutting back on refined sugary foods, like soda, cookies and candy
- Include more probiotic foods, including plain yogurt, sauerkraut or homemade pickles, kimchi or kefir
- Take a really good probiotic, like this one that's commonly recommended
- Drink plenty of water, and cut back on sugary drinks that can ferment in your gut
2. You're Throwing Your Blood Sugar Levels Off
When you hear someone refer to blood sugar levels, what they're mostly likely referring to is hormone called insulin. Think of insulin as your "fat-storage" hormone - and it's released from our pancreas.
Insulin acts like an anchor when we eat - no matter how healthy the food is. Insulin's just is to pull down sugars in our blood so they don't go out of control.
BUT when we eat foods that are too sugary, or convert to sugar in our body too quickly, or just too much food in general, insulin has to work really hard. Too hard.
The insulin anchor that helped to pull down your sugar is now a working too hard, pulling your sugars down really far. When this happens you get hungry! Some people refer to this as a blood sugar roller coaster.
Make sense? It's important to understand.
- You eat.
- Food releases sugar into our blood.
- Insulin does its job to pull the sugar back to a normal level.
- If the meal or snack is too big or has too much sugar, more-than-healthy amounts of insulin are released.
- A lot of insulin leads to lower blood sugar levels.
- Lower blood sugar levels lead to hunger.
- You start looking for food again.
- Because you're hungry, probably really hungry, you want something sugary.
- And so begins the cycle again.
Be careful. You need to start controlling this as soon as possible. Our pancreas won't work forever like this. The result, at first, is high A1C levels, pre-diabetes, then ultimately type 2 diabetes.
We don't have stem cells to replace a damaged pancreas. So once the damage is done, you're looking at a lifetime of maintenance - which can be done through the care of a physician. But wouldn't it be great if you never had to worry about this?
If you're prone to feeling hungry frequently, and this sounds like you, then you might be able to manage your blood sugar levels by:
- Eating a meal that has a balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat
- Avoiding refined carbohydrates, or starchy carbohydrates altogether
- Focus on fat and protein for all three meals
- Eat a protein with a complex carb for snacks, including carrots + hummus, a hard-boiled egg + berries, walnuts + plain yogurt
- Drink lots of water to stay hydrated
- If you happen to gain weight in your belly, read more about my Apple-Shape Meal Plan (it will help), as well as the foods you should avoid
- Most importantly, see a doctor if you're unreasonably hungry all the time. Ignoring a problem won't make it go away.
Practical Tips to Stop Snacking Altogether
After you've started establishing healthier eating habits, even if it's not at the right time of day, it's time to think about cutting out the mindless snacking when you're not hungry altogether. Here are a few simple tips to help you cut it out.
Curb the Behavior: Of all the tips, this one - in my humble opinion - will work the best in the long run. Change the environment you're in before the craving hits. If you know you usually hit the kitchen an hour after dinner, grab your laptop or iPad and head to your bedroom to work on your playlist for tomorrow's workout. If you have a hard time avoiding pastries that are brought into the office at 9am on Friday, keep a protein-packed yogurt at your desk and avoid the break room. Do something different.
Write Down Your Health Goals: Even if you know what your goals are in your head, or you just wrote out your goals last night, do it again. If a bowl of chips or scoop of ice cream aren't going to help you lower your cholesterol, boost your energy the next day, or [fill in the blank with your goal here], you'll at least be more conscious of your choices.
Cravings Won't Stop: If you crave, crave, crave all day long, chances are you're a) not getting enough protein, b) not getting enough fat, or possibly c) eating too much sugar and starchy carbs (particularly "wheaty" foods). Eat a little more protein with a smidge of more fat with breakfast. This might do the trick. If not, add a little more protein at lunch. It make take several days to get it right.
Getting control of your cravings and bad eating habits could be the key to weight control! I hope these tips gave you some fresh ideas. If you have any suggestions, post them on my Facebook page, or leave a comment here.
The Belly Burn Plan: If you still want a little more explanation of what it takes to get your body into the best shape (yes, we can all have that), pick up my book The Belly Burn Plan. It's a 6-week plan that helps you eliminate cravings, eat right for your body type and generally feel as amazing as you can.
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Great suggestions. Mindless eating is so easy and so common, it’s great to have a go-to list of things you can allow yourself to have. I think it’s also important to mention that it’s acceptable to allow yourself a little pastry, or whatever it is you won’t let yourself have. It’s important to allow yourself a small piece to get that craving out of your mind. The more you force yourself to not think about it, not crave it or not have it, the harder it becomes to resist. Thanks, great post!!
Thanks for your comments. I agree – I’m a big proponent of the 80/20 rule. Be good 80% of the time and 20% you can treat yourself. Thanks so much for your comments. Traci
Thanks for sharing. Sometimes after a meal I eat a little bit of pnut butter. That usually helps me feel satisfied. I also chew sugar free gum to stop my cravings (which I try not to do because of the artificial sweetners in it). I normally do the herbal tea thing. The aforementioned are just quick fixes.
A little bit of peanut butter can really take the edge off…and a lot better than a bag of chips, right?!
I’ve found that sometimes a glass of cold water with lemon juice and a pinch of salt does the trick…sometimes a handful of raisins and hazelnuts. My favorite method of taking my mind off of eating is giving myself a rub-down with either aromatic body butter or warm moroccan rose massage oil. It makes me feel fantastic and better attuned to my body. Some nice music never hurts…