6 Reasons You Eat When You're Not Hungry

Smiling woman driving car and eating pretzel
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It's a problem that almost all of us share: we eat when we're not hungry. Food can make us feel good and many times enjoying a quick snack can boost our mood, improve work productivity, or even make relationships easier. So, should you eat when you're not hungry?

Unfortunately, the extra calories add up quickly. Sometimes mindless snack calories add pounds of weight over the course of a year. So what's the best way to decide if you should eat when you're not hungry or pass on the food? You'll get the best answer for you if you can determine why it is that you feel you need to eat.

What to Do If You Eat When You're Not Hungry

In a perfect world, you would only eat when you need energy in the form of calories. But, we are human and our worlds are not perfect. So we often eat for reasons that have nothing to do with physiological need.

Elizabeth Huggins, M.E.S.S., RDN, LD, CDE is a registered dietitian at Hilton Head Health (H3) where she works with clients to build healthy eating habits for weight loss and wellness. She says that before you eat it's important to identify your hunger level. She uses the H3 Hunger/Satisfaction Scale with her clients to help them tune in to signs of hunger and then rate the feeling on a scale of 1-10 ranging from "ravenous" to "too full."

She says that the simple act of checking in with your hunger level may help you to stop eating when you're not hungry. At Hilton Head Health, she promotes a "thermal walk" after each meal—a simple mile-long stroll that helps clients to pause the eating cycle and enjoy the feeling of fullness.

But if a leisurely stroll or a hunger scale doesn't help you to curb your mindless eating habits, consider these specific reasons that you might find yourself eating when not hungry.

6 Reasons You Eat When You're Not Hungry

These are some of the most common reasons that you might eat you don't really need the extra calories Use the solutions to help curb your habit.

Boredom
We often head to the refrigerator when we need something to do. At work, you might head to the break room to see if treats are available when you are trying to avoid a tedious project or a phone call with a difficult client. At home, you might avoid chores by visiting the kitchen.
Quick fix: Find another way to engage your brain before you binge on treats. Go chat with a coworker, do an easy mini-workout, or keep a book of puzzles handy and challenge your brain for 5 minutes.

The Need to Taste
The desire to taste something is a variation of boredom eating. We know that the taste and "mouth feel" of food feels good so we desire it when our daily routine needs a quick pick-me-up.
Quick fix: Satisfy your need without adding calories to your waistline. Enjoy Grab a piece of sugar-free gum or brush your teeth. Minty flavors help kill cravings. You can also grab a glass of homemade flavored water.

Nervous Energy
Sometimes we’re in social situations and we eat because it’s the most comfortable thing to do or because we’re nervous. Have you ever stood in front of the appetizer table and nibbled endlessly at a party where you feel uncomfortable? That's nervous eating.
Quick fix: In social settings where you don't feel comfortable, stand away from the food. Ask the host or hostess for a job to keep yourself busy (clean plates, take coats, offer guests drinks).Then you won’t be tempted to dip into the chip bowl or grab for cheese treats instead of meeting new people.

Emotional Comfort
Food fills an emotional void for many people. It provides comfort, warmth, and a feeling of satisfaction. Many times it also provides joy and a feeling of being cared for.
Quick fix: If this is the reason that you eat when you’re not hungry, you have a few options to curb the habit. First, try replacing the snack habit with a healthy habit. Many experts recommend physical activity like going for a walk or a quick yoga break because those activities can help curb negative thinking. If that doesn’t work, consider taking a more long-term approach to find a soluition. Don’t hesitate to work with a behavioral therapist to address emotional barriers to weight loss. Many therapists are specifically trained to help clients with eating issues.

Habit
Your mindless eating habit may have started as boredom, but once you start visiting the refrigerator every day at 3 pm, your body starts to expect food at 3 pm. Or when you only watch television with food on your lap, you forget how to watch your favorite show without food.
Quick fix: The next time that you wander to the refrigerator or to the snack tray, ask yourself why. If the answer doesn’t include the word “hunger,” go for a walk or call a friend instead. You’ll end up replacing the old habit with a healthy new one.

Location

Huggins says that certain environments may stimulate the urge to eat when you're not hungry. Obviously, a restaurant is going to encourage cravings. Or you might be accustomed to eating in your car. So when you commute or go on long car trips you habitually pass the time by eating.

Quick fix: Huggins suggests that you specifically define your eating location. For example, if you need to eat during your drive to work in the morning, then plan healthy easy-to-eat foods and make the car your go-to breakfast destination. But for most of us, we can choose to eat our meals in our home kitchen or dining room to enhance the dining experience and increase satisfaction.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that moderate portion-controlled nibbling is good for you as long as you don’t consume too many calories from snacks. But eating when you’re not hungry or when you don’t need to can derail your diet or cause weight gain. Of course, you should never wait until you are starving before you eat, either. Try to eat moderate portions at at regular intervals throughout the day to stay satisfied all day long and avoid mindless eating, binge eating or eating foods that aren’t good for your diet.

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