Overeating or eating out of boredom are types of disordered eating behaviors that can be very harmful to your health.
While bingeing on some foods (such as high-sugar or high-carb foods) is worse for your health than other types of foods, consuming excess calories of any kind can have a negative impact on your health. Yet, many people eat out of boredom or do what’s called ‘stress eating’ even when they’re not hungry.
The more you eat, the more at risk you are of weight gain, gastrointestinal issues, digestion problems, and even heart disease. Even in the short-term, eating when you’re not hungry most commonly leads to stomach pains and nausea.
Why do so many of us eat when we’ve already had dinner, we’re not hungry, and we don’t actually need to eat?
There are a number of reasons why you might eat when you’re not hungry. Sometimes, the problem comes from simply not understanding your own bodily signals. For instance, the stomach pang you’re feeling can come from thirst, rather than hunger. It’s very common to confuse thirst for hunger. Other times, we eat as a way to fill a void, such as emotional eating, stress eating, or eating out of boredom.
Why Do We Eat When We’re Not Hungry? The Science
In one study designed to examine the psychological aspects of eating when not hungry, scientists asked 32 healthy volunteers to sit in front of a screen and press a button whenever asked to do so. When they pressed the button, a machine next to them released a snack.
The researchers in this study were looking at the activities of a certain region of the brain – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for anticipating the value of an expected event. For instance, when we’re sitting in a restaurant feeling hungry, neurons flash through your brain increasing anticipation of a meal.
Once you’re already full, the response to seeing a waiter carrying food next to your table is very diminished. This is because when you’re hungry, food coming close to you is associated with high reward. When you’re not hungry, the reward isn’t as evident.
Using MRI machines, the scientists in the study discovered that for the group who spent less time getting used to the machine with the snack reward, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex worked as normal, reducing the response to food when the participant was full. However, for a group of participants who formed a habit of pressing the button and getting a reward over time, the brain worked differently. The response to the food was just as strong even when the participant was full.
The scientists suggested for many of us, the desire to eat something out of habit can therefore be just as strong as the decision to eat because we need sustenance.
From Habit to Stress: Common Reasons for Overeating
The research above is just one example of why we might eat when we’re not hungry.
We often do things out of habit without thinking, which is why you might end up eating more food when you’re distracted by the television or you’re reading something on your phone. When you’re not actively paying attention to the feeling of “fullness” in your stomach, you don’t get the same cognitive signals telling you to stop eating.
However, habitual “passive” behaviour is just one explanation for overeating.
Some other common reasons for eating without hunger include:
In a world where we spend so much time rushing between tasks, it’s easy to forget how to pay attention to your body and what it really needs. If you’ve ever woken up in the morning and reached for a snack rather than water to give you energy, but didn’t get the right results, you’ll know how easy it can be to confuse thirst for hunger.
The best way to overcome this problem is to try being more mindful. Next time you’re not sure if you’re hungry or thirsty, ask yourself when the last time you drank a glass of water was. Grabbing a glass of refreshing water could satisfy the ache in your stomach.
Boredom eating is a significant problem for a lot of people trying to “fill a gap” in their life, without a true insight into what they really need. When you’re at work, you might head to the breakroom and snack on something just because you’re tired of whatever task you’re supposed to be working on.
At home, it’s common to end up walking listlessly around the house and checking the fridge when you don’t know what else to do. Rather than feeding your stomach every time hunger strikes, try feeding your mind instead. Download a puzzle game on your phone or do a mini word search.
We all have cravings for particular flavors from time to time. Eating can be a very pleasurable experience, with countless textures and tastes to explore. Your ability to taste can impact your appetite control. For example if your CircleDNA test reveals that it’s in your DNA to be a ‘supertaster’, this means you’re less likely to have good control over your appetite.
Sometimes, when your stomach is rumbling, it’s because you’re hungry for a pleasurable experience, rather than something filling. Supertasters really enjoy the taste of food, and it can be harder to remember you’re eating for the taste rather than for hunger.
One way to overcome this problem is to be less restrictive in your diet and allow yourself to explore a wide range of different flavors as part of your daily meals. You can also consider having a piece of sugar-free gum or brushing your teeth, as mint can help to reduce other cravings.
Anxiety can cause a number of complex symptoms, from sweating and palpitations to a sense of hunger you just can’t seem to overcome. Nervous eating is a common problem for people with anxiety because food can be extremely comforting.
If you’re full of nervous energy, and it’s causing you to binge-eat or consume too many snacks, try to separate yourself from the food. Give your hands and your mind something else to focus on, so you’re not just naturally dipping into a bag of chips almost out of instinct.
Anxiety isn’t the only emotion capable of contributing to over-eating. Emotional eating can come in many different forms, and it’s actually a significant form of disordered eating. Food can fill an emotional void, making you feel more “complete” in moments when sadness, depression, or grief create a sense of emptiness.
Food can provide comfort, warmth, and feelings of satisfaction. Certain foods also give us a sense of pleasure and joy. If you’re eating because of your emotional issues, it might be time to ask yourself what you’re really hungry for. How can you give yourself the emotional fulfilment you need, without relying on food?
For instance, if you’re looking for a feeling of comfort, meditating or practicing yoga can help to relax your mind and make you feel more comfortable in your skin. In some cases, if emotional eating is a severe problem for you, it might be worth seeking the guidance of a therapist.
Certain environments can change the way we think and feel, particularly if we’re exposed to a similar situation multiple times. For instance, if every time you go to the break room in your workplace you eat something, you’ll eventually teach your brain to associate the room with a sense of hunger and the demand for food.
Various locations can encourage cravings over time and push your brain to start creating that anticipatory response we mentioned above. If you develop a “trigger” response to a location, the best thing you can do to control this is reduce how often you visit that destination when you’re trying to avoid over-eating.
Alternatively, you can try teaching different connections. For instance, you could start drinking a glass of water every time you visit the break room instead, to develop a habit of hydration.
How to Stop Eating When You’re Not Hungry
The best way to reduce your risk of eating when you’re not hungry is to figure out what’s prompting you to eat in the first place. Are you eating to fill an emotional void, or are you just doing it out of habit? Knowing the reason behind your snacking will help you to come up with a more intuitive solution to the problem.
One good option which can work for a lot of disordered eating habits, is mindful eating. Mindful eating is the process of paying careful attention to every experience you have when consuming food. The idea is you slow down and pay attention to flavors, sensations, and emotions, so you’re more likely to recognize when you’re actually hungry, and when you’re satisfied.
Mindful eating helps to develop healthier relationships with food, by helping you to understand what your body actually wants at any given time. You can also pair this strategy with using a food diary. Food diaries can help you to track triggers and issues which are more likely to prompt eating when you’re not hungry.
If you’re aware of the things which might push you to overeat, you can be more mindful of them in the future.
In some cases, it can also be helpful to try a couple of simple things before you start eating, to see if you can rule out other “hunger feelings”. Taking a walk to take your mind off a feeling of stress or grabbing a drink of water can help you to reassess your feelings and decide if you’re really hungry.
Be More Mindful with Your Eating Habits
Being more cautious about how you eat, and learning how to determine when you’re actually hungry, can help you to make some positive changes to your life. If nothing else, being able to differentiate between hunger, boredom, habit, or stress should ensure you’re not consuming unnecessary calories on a regular basis.
The more mindful you become, and the more you pay attention to your body, the more likely it is you’ll be able to understand its other needs in the future too.