Stop Eating When You're Not Hungry

Last Editorial Review: 4/12/2005

Simple strategies can help you overcome overeating

By John Casey
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

You may not be aware of it, but you have a relationship with food. We all do, food experts say, and as with all relationships, there are good things about it and bad things, too. Eating when we're not hungry is one of those bad things that come with living in an environment that is superabundant in food.

One of the main reasons we eat when we're not hungry is because we sometimes use food to shield ourselves from uncomfortable feelings, says David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. "People eat sometimes to get relief from boredom, depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress, and other moods," he says.

Often, the foods we reach for first in times of stress are "comfort foods that our mothers used to soothe the scraped knee or tender ego," says WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Dietitian Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD. "If we don't reach for comfort foods, we tend to reach for alcohol, sweets, and savory foods that tend to be high in fats, sugar, and calories."

Track Your Triggers

A big part of weight management "is recognizing these mechanisms and applying skills and strategies to address the difference between the need to eat and the desire to eat," says Katz, author of The Way to Eat, which was co-published with the American Dietetic Association.

How do you begin to recognize these mechanisms?

Tracking your eating triggers is the first step, says Lauren Solotar, PhD, chief psychologist at the May Institute, a nonprofit behavioral health organization in Walpole, Mass. Solotar, who studies obesity and eating disorders, has her clients fill out diaries detailing what they ate and their feelings at the time. Over time, the diary entries make it clear when the client is vulnerable to eating for reasons other than hunger.

This approach "gradually allows people to recognize how their feelings are triggering eating behaviors," Solotar says. That self-recognition, she says, is an important skill: "Once a client learns to recognize the feelings that trigger eating, that skill can be used to rein in unnecessary eating."

When you feel the urge to eat, ask yourself a few questions, says Solotar:

  • Am I actually, physically hungry?
  • How will I feel after eating?
  • Is the food I plan to eat something my body needs?

"Identifying feelings and asking questions initiates a [thought] process that brings behavior under better control," she says.

What you eat is important, too, says Katz. A diet rich in non-processed foods and high in fiber "can help maintain levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that strongly influences mood. Eating well tends to promote mental as well as physical health."

Watching television for hours in the evening or sitting at a computer monitor at your desk all day can also make you vulnerable to unnecessary eating.

"Research shows that people who eat in front of the TV report feeling like they haven't eaten at all."

Watching TV can become a behavioral pattern -- one that competes with your other patterns of general activity, including physical exercise, says Gerard Musante, PhD. Musante is a clinical psychologist and consulting professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center and founder of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, N.C.

"Data shows that watching four hours of television a day, for example, tends to be a consistent behavioral pattern of an obese individual," he says. "Studies have shown the typical American family may spend as much as 25 hours a week in front of the television."

And while we're watching TV or surfing away on our computers, we tend to not pay attention to what or how much we are eating. Researchers who study eating behavior call this "food inattentiveness."

"Television is a big problem," says Solotar. "When we eat in front of the television, we aren't paying attention to what we are eating. Research shows that people who eat in front of the TV report feeling like they haven't eaten at all. It appears that the food eaten doesn't register all that well when we are distracted."

Solotar calls eating while watching TV a "high-risk eating situation." Other such situations include parties, celebrations, and other potentially stressful social and work situations.

Tips and Strategies

Here are some simple strategies to overcome food cravings when you know you're not hungry or are in high-risk eating situations:

  • Before you eat, drink a glass of water, wait 10 minutes, and see if you can get past the urge to eat.
  • Don't eat in front of the TV.
  • Eat every few hours instead of letting a snack attack drive you to the vending machine.
  • Create a safe nutritional environment at home -- have plenty of healthy food on hand and don't keep junk food in the house.
  • Plan healthy snacks for those times when you are vulnerable to eating, especially late afternoon and after dinner.
  • Find alternative behaviors to eating: take a bubble bath, go to the movies, walk the dog, wash the car. Chances are, if you can distract yourself, the urge to eat will pass.
  • Do something physical before dinner -- talk a walk, ride a bike around the block -- to help yourself calm down from the day and sort through feelings before you start to eat.

We live in a food-rich environment with seemingly unending choices of healthy and less-than-healthy foods. That's why, says Musante, we "must learn to live with food, to use food in an appropriate and healthy way and at the same time begin to understand your unique relationship with food."

Originally published Aug. 22, 2003.
Medically updated Jan. 13, 2006.

SOURCES: David Katz, MD, director, Prevention Research Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn. Lauren Solotar, chief psychologist, the May Institute, Walpole, Mass. Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic dietitian. Gerard Musante, PhD, consulting professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Duke University Medical Center; founder, Structure House, Durham, N.C.

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