Eating when you re not hungry

10 Reasons You Eat When You're Not Hungry

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on May 27, 2021

Long-term stress floods your body with cortisol, a hormone that plays a part in your fight or flight system. In order to refuel your body after a stressful encounter, cortisol makes you want to eat more. If stress is a near-constant state for you, those cortisol levels stay up and keep you reaching for the snacks.

When you don’t get enough rest, your levels of ghrelin (a hormone that makes you want to eat) go up. Meanwhile, your levels of leptin (a hormone that decreases hunger and the desire to eat) go down. These two hormones control feelings of hunger. The result: You feel hungry even if your body doesn’t need food.

Eating is a handy outlet for the extra energy that comes with feeling edgy. Not only does it give you something to do, it also distracts you from whatever’s making you nervous. Or you might manage your stress by not eating at all. This can slow your system down because your body thinks it’s starving. When you finally do eat, you’re more likely to overdo it.

Anxiety has a strong link with eating disorders. Binge eating can be a way to help manage your worries and stress. Other things, from genes, depression, and mood disorders to trauma, addiction, or abuse can make you more likely to binge as a way to manage your emotions.

Not all emotional eating happens when you’re feeling down. It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of a social event and ignore the signs that you’re no longer hungry, or to feel an obligation to go along with the group.

Booze lowers your inhibitions, and that includes good judgment about when and how much to eat. It also makes you more likely to eat less healthy things, like foods full of fats and sugar. Studies show that drinking affects the part of your brain that monitors self-control, making it much harder to resist a tasty snack.

Sometimes all it takes is the power of suggestion to make you want to snack. Studies show advertising with food in it makes it more likely that you’ll grab whatever food you have on hand and chow down.

Eating when you aren’t hungry can cause weight gain and other health issues like blood sugar problems. This unhealthy cycle won’t end unless you become aware of your cues and find other ways to respond to them.

Real hunger hits you slowly, and it can be easy to postpone. You’re also more likely to feel satisfied from many options. Emotional or mindless eating comes on quickly and makes you crave specific foods. You may also respond to food availability and eat because the food is there. This makes you more likely to overeat -- and feel guilty afterward, too.

Find healthy outlets for your emotions, like exercise or meditation. Get together with friends who can support you in your quest to eat more mindfully. And keep junk food out of the house. That’ll make it easier to be healthy if you do eat your feelings.


  1. Getty
  2. Getty
  3. Getty
  4. Getty
  5. Getty
  6. Getty
  7. Getty
  8. Getty
  9. Getty
  10. Getty



Food & Nutrition: “Binge Eating Disorder: An Introduction to the Most Common Eating Disorder,” “The Vicious Cycle: Sleep, Stress and Diet.

Harvard Health Publishing: “Eating Frequency and Weight Loss,” “Why stress causes people to overeat.”

Harvard School of Public Health: “3 ways decreased sleep contributes to overeating.”

Mayo Clinic: “Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating.”

Health Psychology Research: “The Role of Anxiety in Binge Eating Behavior: A Critical Examination of Theory and Empirical Literature.”

Kids Health: “Emotional Eating.”

Health Psychology: “Alcohol’s acute effect on food intake is mediated by inhibitory control impairments,” “Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior.”

National Institutes of Health: “Diet Quality Worsens as Alcohol Intake Increases.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info

It's okay to eat when you're not hungry

It's okay to eat when you're not hungry

By Rebecca Stetzer, RD, Gundersen Nutrition Therapy

Find Healthy Recipes

Intuitive eating has been gaining traction as a method of eating that tunes into natural signals of hunger and fullness and puts pleasure and satisfaction when eating as the forefront goals. Unfortunately, many people have translated eating intuitively as eating only when physically hungry. There are a few issues that arise when you only eat when hungry:

  • Food isn't always available. Let's say you aren't hungry while you're getting ready for work in the morning. But your job or school schedule doesn't allow you to just stop and eat whenever you do get hungry. You may get hunger pangs and have trouble concentrating by 10 am and lunch break isn't until 12:30. It may seem like your body is okay running on an empty tank for a little while, but eventually, it will start to rebel.
  • You may rarely feel hungry. Some people find it difficult to decipher hunger cues, or maybe have a health condition (such as disordered eating, gastrointestinal conditions, anxiety or depression, etc.) that makes it hard to feel hungry. You could wait until you feel hungry to eat, but that might mean hours or even a whole day before you eat something, and you would not get adequate calories, protein, and other nutrients from the food your body needs.
  • Food isn't strictly fuel. There's no doubt food is enjoyable. There would be less of a drive to seek food if it wasn't, and humans would struggle to survive. If you strictly ate for hunger, there would be less pleasure and satisfaction from food. That would mean no favorite foods, no coffee or cozy cup of tea on a cool day, no dessert with dinner, and no holiday or celebratory eating. What is life without those pleasures?

Not only is it okay to eat when you're not hungry, but it's often a smart self-care decision to eat when not hungry. Have you ever made yourself go to the bathroom before embarking on a long car or airplane trip, even if you didn't have to go at the moment? Eating in anticipation of your body's nutritional needs is equivalent to going to the bathroom before a long trip; you do it because it will prevent future bodily discomfort.

Nutrition research may be ever-changing, but what remains consistent is the knowledge that humans need regular fueling. Breaking the overnight fast with food within 1-2 hours of waking up and eating about every 3-5 hours throughout the day is what bodies function best with.

Eating breakfast, even when you're not hungry, will prevent the dip in focus, energy and mood before you have an opportunity to eat again. Eating regularly throughout the day will likely provide you with adequate calories, protein and nutrients even when your anxiety, depression or other medical condition prevents your body from telling you it needs fuel.

Food is meant to be enjoyed. This means sometimes you will enjoy food when you're not hungry, and that's okay. If you're worried about whether you're eating enough, how often you're eating when you're not hungry, or if you are concerned that food has become your primary tool for coping with emotions, seek the help of an intuitive eating-informed registered dietitian.

Health & wellness newsletter signup

First Name

Last Name

Email Address *

Related articles

Do juice cleanses really work?

It's true that you’re likely to lose weight on a juice cleanse, but this is simply because you’re consuming fewer calories.

How to get more vitamin C

Vitamin C is an essential nutrient, meaning your body doesn’t produce enough and needs adequate amounts through the food you eat.

Fruit and yogurt parfaits

Makes 4 servings Ingredients 3 cups vanilla non-fat Greek yogurt 1 cup fresh or defrosted frozen strawberries 1 pint fresh blackberries, raspberries or blueberries 1 cup granola or nuts Preparation

Fresh ideas for fruit

Traditionally fruit is eaten plain or doused in sugar and butter and served as a dessert; however, fruit can be used in a wide range of recipes.

Why do we eat.

.. when we are not hungry


Health and beauty Listen to your body

Without a balance in nutrition, no balance in life will come about. How to make appetite an ally of well-being? The task is not easy, because the feeling of hunger has many faces.

The very first food is the meaning of life

“Relationship with food is the first very intimate experience of bodily contact between a person and another person,” says psychoanalyst Ksenia Korbut. “There is such closeness between mother and child during feeding that they become almost a single being. Only gradually does the baby begin to perceive himself as separate from his mother, to distinguish between "I" and "not-I".

If this acquaintance with reality fails, the child, and then the adult, will not acquire a sense of separateness and isolation of his own body, his boundaries will seem fuzzy to him, he will poorly distinguish between “inside” and “outside”, and food will not be experienced by him as something external.

It would be easier if the matter was limited to physiology: then we would eat until the hunger is satisfied. “Both the mother and the child are anxious in such a situation,” continues Ksenia Korbut. - This experience will be traumatic if the mother has little - or, conversely, too obsessive - attention to the child, if she is depressed, or if he does not feel sufficiently protected with her. In the future, his relationship with food will be unregulated.”

“Only if we regain our feelings, listen to our emotions, can we restore harmonious relationships with food and, therefore, with ourselves,” says Olga Dolgopolova, a gestalt therapist.

Physiological hunger: the need for food

Without the calories and nutrients we get from food, we cannot function either physically or intellectually. The feeling of hunger tells us that it's time to "refuel". How does hunger manifest itself?

“When I'm hungry, I can't concentrate and I lose my ability to think,” admits Nadia. Some people experience excitement followed by irritation.

“I feel weak, my stomach growls, I become irritable,” says Elena. Biologically, these symptoms correlate with complex and poorly understood mechanisms. There are many hypotheses on this score: a decrease in amino acid reserves, processes associated with liver metabolism, a signal emanating from adipose tissue. The strongest stimulus is considered to be a 7% drop in blood sugar levels.

It would be easier if the matter were limited to physiology: then we would eat until our hunger is satisfied. But we are also endowed with five senses and reason - and this greatly complicates the situation.

Sensory hunger: passion for food

Since the human civilization has elevated the preparation and eating of food to the rank of a ritual and almost an art, the feeling of hunger is inseparable from appetite. Appetite, which Ozhegov's Dictionary (RAS, 1993) defines as "the desire to eat", serves as a harbinger of the pleasure that we will receive from the satisfaction of this desire. It is enough to smell the dish being prepared, to see the cakes in the window of a pastry shop, to hear the crackling of oil in a frying pan - and we begin to salivate.

“The sight of the cake stimulates appetite, produces saliva and large amounts of insulin,” comments Dr. Gerard Apfeldorfer, a French psychiatrist and nutritionist. - We have not yet brought a piece to our lips, and the body is already ready to digest the cake it has seen. Conversely, the released insulin and hormones, sharpening desires, make this cake even more seductive.

With the help of food, we satisfy the need for love, comfort ourselves and want to relive pleasant moments from the past

Appearance and smell are the most appetizing. Then, of course, taste - it is not for nothing that they say that appetite comes with eating. Taste buds make us eat more than we need, just for the sake of taste pleasure.

“Taste and smell are the most ancient of our five senses: they mobilize the primitive areas of the brain,” continues Gerard Apfeldorfer. - Moreover, they are inseparable - anatomically and physiologically - from our affects and from our memory. Each taste sensation is automatically attached to a certain emotion, an affective reaction of pleasure or displeasure, which gives it a special color.

Emotional hunger: craving for food

The hunger of the heart is added to the hunger of the receptors. This is about him the story of the madeleine cake, told by Marcel Proust in In Search of Lost Time.

Childhood memories are associated with specific foods or dishes, and we eat them not so much for the sake of taste, but to feel again the comfort, love and warmth that surrounded us then. We transfer these emotions to food, and this transfer has nothing to do with the feeling of hunger. The same thing happens when, with the help of food, we want to disperse boredom, brighten up loneliness, drown out anxiety, soften anger.

“In all these cases, refreshment is a way to get rid of an unpleasant thought, overcome melancholy, alleviate suffering, since the feeling of fullness is directly associated with a feeling of love, well-being and security,” explains Ksenia Korbut.

In the case of bulimia, which is considered an extreme, pathological form of emotional hunger, food intake acts as an immediate antidepressant. Such people, not knowing how to live their emotions, are fenced off from sensations.

So, we don't just eat to get the calories we need. With the help of food, we satisfy the need for love, console ourselves and protect ourselves, seek taste pleasures and want to relive pleasant moments from the past. What is your relationship with food?

Text: Alexander Belyakov Photo credit: Getty Images

New on the site

Arson propensity: what kind of people do they tend to do?

What men are afraid of in bed: 3 main fears

Women's team: why sexual competition makes you hate colleagues

Quiz: Do you have nerves?

“Default parent” syndrome: check if there is one in your family

“I am expecting a child from an African. He left me, my parents insist on an abortion”

7 books that will help solve sexual problems

Sabbatical: how to go on vacation for six months

it happened more than once: you don’t seem to feel hunger, and you don’t have much appetite, but all the time you chew something - now cookies, then candy, and sometimes something more substantial - cheesecakes freshly fried by your mother (they smell all over apartment, how not to be tempted here!), then a sandwich with sausage (it is so tasty!) and in addition just a piece of a loaf (when you brought it from the store, it was still hot).

Some time later, having assessed the scale of the food disaster, you are horrified and think: "Why am I eating like crazy - what's wrong with me ?!"

Why we eat when we're not hungry

Humans, unlike animals who only eat when they're hungry, often don't mind eating something—sometimes quite a lot—between meals. Such stable expressions as “appetite comes with eating”, “eat for company”, “eat so that goodness does not disappear”, “seize the problem”, are known to everyone and they talk about this particular problem. And the fact that irrational nutrition in our time has become a global problem, no one has any doubts or objections.

Also read

The reasons for overeating in each person are purely individual. For some, the process of eating is associated with parental love, for others - with a cure for sadness and longing, for others - with gatherings in a friendly company, for others - with solving serious issues in business negotiations - more precisely, during the accompanying buffet table, and this list can go on for quite some time.

The problem of overeating comes from childhood
Weight loss and healthy eating

But the roots of this problem, like many other psychological problems, in any case, go back to childhood. Excessive parental anxiety about the "malnutrition" of a beloved child and ignoring the feeling of satiety develops a persistent habit of overeating in a child. And parental manipulations "a spoon for mom, a spoon for dad" or the fear of becoming bad for mom because of refusal is - "mom tried - she cooked!" - teach to absorb food, regardless of the feeling of hunger and satiety.

From childhood, we also associate food with a feeling of warmth, comfort and tranquility: if you are full, it means that someone who loves has taken care of you. Growing up, we adopt the habit of expressing our love in a "culinary" way, and with it the fear of losing this very love. So, a young husband chokes, but praises what he - very clumsily - has prepared for his young wife, who, in turn, visiting her mother-in-law is forced, smiling wryly, to eat salads generously seasoned with mayonnaise, which she has long excluded from her diet.

By the way, "trouble eating" also came to us from childhood - to reduce stress and anxiety, you need to feel loved and protected from troubles, and for this, again, you need to eat. However, in addition to this, a person who is nervous, in the process of eating, displaces the feeling of anxiety, replacing it with action - chewing.

How to deal with the constant desire to eat

It is rather difficult to figure out where exactly your tendency to overeat comes from - it is better to turn to a psychologist with this question. But you can get rid of the desire to constantly snack without outside help - it’s not so difficult, but you still have to show perseverance and willpower.

Also read

Wait until you feel hungry. First of all, make a rule for yourself: eat only when you feel hungry - from one meal to another, this averages four hours. Do not confuse physiological hunger, when food is needed to maintain strength, with psychological hunger - the desire to curb your emotions, no matter positive or negative, with the help of food. If you understand that your hunger is psychological, try to refrain from snacking. It may be difficult at first, but over time, the ability to overdo yourself will turn into a habit that you can be proud of.

Learn to eat properly. Remember that the ability to eat correctly is a real science, and perhaps an art. Take your time and do not swallow food, chew thoroughly to feel the taste of each bite. Since satiety occurs at the level of the stomach before the signal reaches the brain, take breaks during meals - this will ensure that you do not eat more than you need. And, most importantly, know how to stop on the verge of undereating and overeating, because this is exactly the case when it is better to undereat a little than even a little bit, but overeat.

Learn substitution. Whatever the reasons for overeating, for some reason your body needs them. Learn to replace them with other activities. If you need warmth and affection, ask your loved ones for them.

Learn more