6 Reasons You Eat When You're Not Hungry

Smiling woman driving car and eating pretzel
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Food can make us feel good, and many times, enjoying a quick snack (even when we aren't feeding our hunger) can boost our mood, improve our productivity at work, or make our relationships easier.

However, the extra calories add up quickly, and mindless snacking can add pounds of weight over the course of a year. How do you decide when (or if) you should eat when you aren't hungry? The first step is figuring out why you feel like you need to eat.

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

In a perfect world, you would only eat when your body needs energy in the form of calories. However, we are human and our worlds are not perfect—we often eat for reasons that have nothing to do with satisfying our physiological needs.

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. Huggins says that it's important to identify your hunger level before you eat.

She uses the H3 Hunger/Satisfaction Scale with her clients to help them tune in to their signs of hunger. They can then rate the feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 (ranging from "ravenous" to "too full").

According to Huggins, the simple act of checking in with your hunger and assigning a specific level to the feeling 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 pause the eating cycle and enjoy the feeling of fullness.

If a leisurely stroll or a hunger scale doesn't encourage a more mindful approach that to curb your mindless eating habits, you might need to consider more specific reasons that you are eating when you are not hungry.

6 Reasons You Eat When You're Not Hungry

These are some of the most common reasons for eating when you do not need the calories for energy, as well as some strategies for handling them.

You're Bored

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 for a quick snack.

The Fix

Try to find another way to engage your brain instead of reaching for food. Go chat with a co-worker, do an easy mini-workout, or keep a book of puzzles handy and challenge your brain for a few minutes.

You Want the Taste

The desire to taste something is a variation of boredom eating. We desire the taste and "mouth feel" of foods we enjoy when our daily routine needs a pick-me-up.

The Fix

You can satisfy your need for taste without adding calories to your daily intake. Try having a piece of sugar-free gum or brushing your teeth (the minty flavor can help reduce cravings). You can also grab a glass of homemade flavored water.

You're Full of Nervous Energy

In social situations, we sometimes eat because it’s the most comfortable thing to do —or because we’re nervous. "Nervous eating" can happen when we are in a social situation we are not sure about. Have you ever stood in front of the appetizer table and nibbled endlessly at a party because you felt uncomfortable? That's nervous eating!

The Fix

If you're in a social setting where you don't feel comfortable, try to stand away from the food. Ask the host or hostess for a job to keep yourself busy (such as cleaning plates, taking coats, offering guests drinks).

If you have a task to do, you won’t be tempted to dip into the chip bowl or grab a cheese treat. It will also make you feel good to be helpful and make it easier to mingle and meet new people.

You Need Emotional Comfort

For many people, food fills an emotional void. It provides comfort, warmth, and a feeling of satisfaction. It can also bring us joy and give us a feeling of being cared for. This is true for so many people that many therapists are specifically trained to help clients learn to recognize and deal with a broad range of issues related to eating.

The Fix

If you eat because you have unmet emotional needs, you have a few options. First, try replacing your habitual snacking with a different habit. Many experts recommend a physical activity such as going for a walk or taking a quick yoga break. Not only will these activities get you moving, but they can also help curb negative thinking.

If a short-term physical activity doesn't help, you might need to think about a more long-term approach. It might help you to work with a behavioral therapist. They can help you learn to recognize and address any emotional barriers to weight loss that you might have.

You Snack Out of Habit

A mindless eating habit might have started out as simple boredom, but if you start visiting the refrigerator every day at 3 p.m. on the dot, your body will start to expect food at 3 p.m. The same is true if you always watch television with food on your lap—eventually, you forget how to watch your favorite show without a snack.

The Fix

The next time you find yourself wandering to the refrigerator or snack cupboard, ask yourself why. If the answer does not include the word “hunger,” go for a walk or call a friend instead. This will help you replace your old snack habit with a new, healthier one.

Certain Places Trigger Cravings

Huggins says that certain environments can stimulate the urge to eat when you're not hungry. A restaurant is an obvious location that would encourage cravings, but you likely have your own unique triggers.

For example, you might always snack in your car during your commute or to pass the time on a long car trip. If you come to associate your car with food, you might feel like you need a snack even when you're only driving to the bank.

The Fix

Huggins suggests that you specifically define your eating location. For example, if your hectic schedule means that you must eat on your drive to work in the morning, plan healthy, easy-to-eat foods and make your car your go-to breakfast destination.

If you can choose, have your meals in your home kitchen or dining room. This will only enhance the dining experience and increase your satisfaction with your meal.

Try Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating has become an important practice if you're trying to change food-related behaviors. While it is not designed specifically for weight loss, the practice can lead to an improvement in your overall health, energy, and sense of wellness. Some people find that they naturally lose weight when they use the practice and replace less healthy habits.

Mindful eating is one tool that is commonly used when practicing intuitive eating.

Intuitive eating can help you develop a healthier relationship with food. When you are confronted with the temptation to snack when you aren't hungry, an intuitive eating practice can help you avoid getting pulled into a "should" or "shouldn't" mental tug-of-war.

A Word From Verywell

Moderate, portion-controlled nibbling can be a healthy habit as long as you don’t consume too many of your daily calories from snacks. Eating when you are not hungry or when you don’t need the energy can lead to weight gain, but you also don't want to wait until you are absolutely ravenous to eat.

Try to eat moderate portions at regular intervals throughout the day. This will help you stay satisfied and avoid mindless eating or other eating behaviors that won't help you meet your nutritional needs and fitness goals.

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