We’ve all done it, and sometimes we don’t even realize when it’s happening. Maybe you graze when you’re bored, or reach your hand into the office candy jar each time you pass by. Perhaps when you’re feeling sluggish in the afternoon, you head to the vending machine for a pick-me-up. All of these are opportunities to eat for reasons other than hunger. No matter why food calls your name, one thing rings true: We have all eaten something when we weren’t truly hungry. While that’s OK from time to time, too much eating without thinking can really hurt your weight management goals. And depending on what you eat, hurt your health, too.
Take a look at these 10 situations that encourage you to eat when you’re not hungry, plus tips to cope in a healthier way.
Emotions are a common eating trigger. Happy? You might eat a treat to celebrate. Sad? You might eat to soothe yourself with comfort food. Angry? You might take it out with a fork instead of the person who really caused it. But if you turn to food for emotional reasons, you won’t resolve the underlying issues. It may help to track your eating habits in a journal, noting your emotional state when you headed for that snack. Writing it down may help you make a connection you hadn’t seen before, like the fact that you eat when you’re lonely or angry. Then you’ll know for the future to look for a different outlet, such as calling a friend when you’re lonely or turning to that punching bag when you’re mad or stressed.
Because Other People Are Eating
When you’re out enjoying a dinner with family or friends, it can be easy to eat when you’re past the point of fullness—especially if you’re enamored in conversation and not paying attention to your satiation level. Perhaps more common, it’s easy to indulge when others around you are eating, too. It makes you feel like you fit in, and that it’s OK since everyone else is doing it. Research shows that our habits mimic our companions’ actions in situations like these. You don’t have to swear off happy hour with friends to watch your weight though. When your dining companions devour a second basket of bread or chips, or order dessert, don’t automatically follow suit. Check in with your hunger level to see if you really need it or if you’ll be more satisfied with the fun conversation. If you have trouble stopping yourself from reaching for more, use some of these dining out tactics to stay in control.
Because Food is There
Have a candy jar at the office that calls your name? Do you feel powerless to pass up food at a party, even if you’ve already eaten? When food is in plain sight, it can be so easy to grab a handful simply because it’s there. It looks good. You like it. It’s right in front of you. What’s the harm? Any food that is nearby, visible and easily accessible is hard for anyone to turn down. If you’re unable to nix the trigger food altogether, move the treats out of sight—you’ll be less likely to grab a handful. So if you buy a bag of Oreos, put them on a high shelf in a cabinet—not on the counter. Instead of a clear candy jar, try an opaque one or move it to another location. (Alternatively, stock the candy jar with a healthier, more filling treat—like nuts or trail mix.) When you’re already full and food is out at a party, stand with your back to the table or in another room. The flipside of this works, too. When you keep lots of other healthy foods in sight, like a bowl of fruit on the table, you’re more likely to eat them.
Because It’s a Special Occasion
If you work in a big office or have a big family, it can seem like every day is someone’s birthday, anniversary, or shower. And if those celebrations often involve cake or alcohol, it might seem that every party is a calorie-laden minefield. If you don’t want to have a piece of cake every day, don’t automatically get in the cake line when it’s your bosses’ birthday—you can always show your face at the celebration without taking part in the punch bowl. Remember: Celebrations are about the people, not the food. If you do best without temptation, skip the gathering altogether or bring your own low-cal treat. Here’s another tactic: New research shows that just imagining yourself eating a treat can decrease your desire to eat the real thing. Passing up cake or celebratory food on occasion just got easier!
Out of Boredom
Sometimes you’re not emotional—you’re just bored. For many people, eating seems like a good solution when there’s nothing better to do; whether you graze at home on the weekends or entertain yourself with lavish dinners out. But eating can only last for so long—and then you have an afternoon to fill! If you know boredom is a trigger for your emotional eating, have a list of strategies in place to keep yourself busy and entertained when you don’t have anything else to do. Catch up with an old friend, write an old-fashioned snail-mail letter, write in your journal or blog, volunteer in your community, take up a new hobby or read a book you’ve always wanted to read. Better yet, make your boredom-buster an active endeavor, such as trying a new class at the gym, playing an active video game, going for a walk with the dog or flying a kite. Eating won’t sound as appealing if you have a fun alternative to occupy your mind and your body!
Because You’re Tired
The dreaded afternoon energy lull can drive even the most disciplined of us to food—especially sugary treats. But that sugar rush might be followed by an even worse crash. Instead, take a walk around the office, head outside for some rejuvenating natural light, or drink a cup of coffee or a tall glass of cold water. A change of scenery might be just the ticket to battle the afternoon lull.
Because the Clock Says So
Do you pull out your lunchbox when the clock strikes noon, just because it’s time for lunch? Or head to the kitchen at 6 p.m. just because that’s your typical dinnertime? Don’t just eat when the clock tells you to! When mealtime hits, use it as a cue to check in with your current hunger level. Are you actually hungry? If so, whip up that healthy meal. If not, wait until your body tells you to eat, and ignore the clock.
Because It’s Free (Or Cheap)
Everyone loves to get a good deal. But don’t eat up just because something is free (think free samples at the grocery store) or super cheap (buy-one-get-one-free sodas or all-you-can-eat buffets). Always check in with your body’s hunger level before you automatically fill your plate with a freebie.
Because You Can’t Say No to Food Pushers
If you’re a people pleaser, it can be hard to say no, especially when friends or family offer you scrumptious food. And sometimes people who push food don’t take no for an answer. Have excuses lined up in your bag of tricks—and be honest. “I’m not hungry” works well, as does “I’m trying to lose weight.” If you end up with a piece of cake (or a whole cake to take home!) despite your protests, remember that you’re in control (it’s rare that people will try to force feed you). You can always set the fork down or share the cake with neighbors or co-workers, or simply eat just a small portion.
Because You Suffer from Clean Plate Syndrome
Most of us have grew up hearing, “There are starving kids who would love to eat that” to get us to clean our plates as kids. And for many of us, the well-meaning notion to prevent kids from wasting food and encourage them to eat their broccoli has stayed with us into adulthood. Do you still feel obligated to clean your plate, even when you’re not hungry enough to comfortably finish it all—especially at a restaurant where you’re paying a premium for a meal? Fortunately, most of us live with modern amenities like refrigerators and microwaves that make stowing away almost any meal for another time easy. (See, no waste necessary!) To prevent overeating, take stock throughout your meal to gauge how hungry you are; you might find that you don’t need those last few bites after all. If that doesn’t work, use smaller plates at home to eat less! And lastly, get over your fear of leftovers. I’ve met countless people who say they simply don’t eat them. Why not? Many foods taste better the next day or two, and most things can be refrigerated and eaten without sacrificing flavor or texture.
If you eat for reasons other than being hungry, check in with yourself. Knowing what true hunger feels like can help you recognize when you’re eating for other reasons. If you can’t avoid the specific triggers that cause you to eat when you’re not hungry—and there’s no way to avoid them all—knowing these strategies will help!