Non hungry eating: why we do it and how to manage it

Have you ever demolished a tub of ice cream or pack of chips after a bad day at work? Or mindlessly snacked your way through your favourite TV series? 

Accredited Bupa  dietitian Rosalyn D’Angelo says that eating isn’t always prompted by physical hunger.

We’re bored. We’re unhappy. We’re out with friends who are ordering dessert. We want to celebrate a promotion. We always have a coffee before work. Our diet plan tells us we need to snack now. We need a break from filling in that spreadsheet. Our parents told us that we always need to finish the food on our plate. 

“We eat for many reasons – to celebrate, because of the time of day and also for emotional reasons. Food can also be used as a source of comfort,” says D’Angelo.

The hunger games

Non-hungry eating is the eating you do when you’re not physically hungry, and can range from nibbling on carrot sticks as you’re preparing dinner to bingeing on a family-sized block of chocolate while you watch a movie . 

Some non-hungry eating is normal, but for some people it becomes a regular – rather than occasional – habit, potentially affecting their weight and their health.

Be honest with yourself

So how do you know if you’re a non-hungry eater? Accredited Bupa dietitian Gemma Cosgriff suggests keeping a food diary  to identify non-hungry eating habits.

By writing down what you’re eating, how hungry you are, what your mood is and where you are eating, you can see how much of what you eat is prompted by real hunger. You can also look for patterns and situations that trigger non-hungry eating and develop strategies to deal with these triggers. For example, if you tend to head to the kitchen after you’ve finished a tricky task at work, why not go for a walk instead?
lady eating sandwich

Think before you eat

D’Angelo says mindful eating techniques can also help us get back in touch with healthy eating habits.
Try these simple steps:

Before you eat, rate your hunger out of 10.

  • Ask yourself, “Why am I eating this? Does my body really need  this?”
  • Put food on a bowl or plate, so you can see how much you’re eating.
  • Eat in a quiet spot and bring your full attention to the task rather than eating while checking emails or watching TV.
  • Slow the process by chewing food thoroughly and putting your knife and fork down between mouthfuls.
Also, don’t let forbidden foods become your focus. D’Angelo points out that unless your doctor has advised you otherwise (if you have a particular medical condition or allergy, for example),  there should be  no foods you can never have.

The dark side of non-hungry eating

D’Angelo says non-hungry eating linked to feelings of guilt or being out of control could indicate a condition called binge eating disorder. Based on information from the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC), D’Angelo says binge eating disorder can involve consuming food very quickly or until you are uncomfortably full. People can also experience a loss of control while eating, and feel shame or embarrassment.

If you are worried that your eating patterns are part of a bigger issue, D'Angelo advises talking to your GP, who can refer you to a suitable professional such as a psychologist.
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