Why do I keep eating when I'm not hungry? (Part 1)

One of the first things I explain to my clients is that they should eat when they’re hungry. And if they’re not hungry…then they should wait to eat until they are.

This is a tough one for so many people.

So many of us know that it’s good to wait until we are hungry to eat, but sometimes there are really good reasons to eat when we’re not hungry. And here’s the one I hear the most:

If I don’t eat this food right now, I won’t be able to eat it later!

And I totally understand. So this week, I want to introduce a 2-part series where I’ll be addressing this major concern head-on.

When we say that we have to eat now despite not being hungry, we’re usually afraid because either (1) we won’t be able to eat at all later (because we’ll bee too busy) or (2) we won’t be able to eat this particular food later.

This week I’ll be dealing with #1, and next week I’ll give you some support for #2.

Let’s dive right in:


Concern #1: I have to eat now, because I won’t have time to eat later!

We all have busy lives, and for many of us, if we don’t eat now, we won’t get a chance to eat later.

And oh man, I totally feel you here. I hate to feel starving for any period of time, much less for several hours. I get grumpy and have trouble focusing, and it generally just does not go well.

But I do have a question for you:

Is it genuinely, absolutely true that you won’t be able to eat for the next several hours? Are you definitely, undeniably in a situation when you have no control over your actions for the next extended period of time?

I will admit, for some people, it is genuinely true. I’ve worked with women who are residents on duty at a hospital, or who work in the service industry. These women literally have no control over their time until their shift is over.

But for most of us, this isn’t actually the case.

Even though we might not be able to take an hour-long lunch break in the middle of the afternoon, we still have the ability to eat some food – even a handful of almonds or a banana – at some point.

So depending on what camp you’re in, I have some advice for you:

A. If you actually, 100% won’t be able to eat for the next 8 hours.

Look, I feel you. Some people are actually in situations in which you won’t be able to eat for the next several hours and absolutely need to be able to function. In that case, I have two important ideas for you:

  1. Immediately – Eat some simple, bland, high-nutrition food

    Look, you need to eat. I’m not going to argue with that. But I also want to warn you: you are in a bit of a danger zone here. If you start eating when you are not hungry, it is very difficult to know when you’re full. Plus, when we aren’t hungry, low-nutrition foods (chips, cookies) often sound way more appealing than high-nutrition foods (broccoli, tofu, grilled chicken). So it’s very easy to eat way too much junk that you don’t truly want to begin with.

    For all of these reasons, I strongly suggest choosing the most bland, “practical,” high nutrition foods possible. I’m not a nutritionist, and everyone will have a slightly set of foods, but now is the time to eat the foods that will make you feel extremely healthy and nourished. For me that means lean protein and vegetables.

    Why? Because you can’t lie to yourself with boring, practical foods. It’s not delicious enough, so you won’t want to keep eating past the nutrition you’ll need for the next several hours. Plus, if you maximize nutritious foods, you’ll have far more energy and vitality for the next several hours, which it sounds like you need.

    Are you objecting now? (But I want to eat delicious things!) Look, I totally hear you. I want you to eat delicious things, too. And you will! But you are in very dangerous territory eating when you're not hungry, so stick to non-delicious foods for now, and go back to tasty treats when you’re actually freakin’ hungry.
  2. For the future: Plan your hunger

    If these situations are recurring for you (e.g., if they’re related to a job or a regular commitment), or if you are able to predict them in advance, the best thing you can do for yourself is to plan ahead.

    But I mean planning ahead in a different way than you usually hear it.

    I mean: plan ahead to make sure you’re hungry when you need to eat. Eat less during the rest of the day (or the night before) so that right before you start your shift, you are actually hungry and then you can have that pasta and meatballs with a cookie for dessert (or whatever it is that you want) totally guilt-free.

B. If you actually might be able to eat something in the next few hours.

I’ll be honest with you, most people who tell me “I’m not going to be able to eat again for hours!” actually have a lot more flexibility than they are acknowledging. 

If you have a job at an office, or will be in a car, or taking care of your kids for the next several hours, it might be true that you couldn’t eat steak frites with a gilded knife and fork at a fancy French restaurant.

But could you have a handful of almonds or a piece of fruit? I think so.

I don’t say this to be mean or strict.

I say this to support you. I say this so you can feel as good as possible.

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you are frustrated with your eating. And choosing to wait until you are hungry can be such a game-changer for you.

So if you do have some, even very minimal ability to control your actions over the next several hours, I’d highly recommend waiting.

When you eat when you’re hungry, you choose more nourishing foods, it is much easier to stop eating, and food just tastes better. Perhaps even more importantly, you send a message to yourself that food and hunger are linked; so many of us have lost that link by mindlessly eating or forgetting what it feels like. It’s so important to reinforce that connection.

And at the same time, when you choose not to eat when you’re not hungry, make sure that you take care of yourself so that eating later is doable. In other words: have a snack on hand!

Make sure it’s something that can be easily consumed – like nuts, chopped vegetables, fruit, or even half a sandwich or some cut up chicken in tinfoil (it’s not glamorous, but it’ll get you through).

But wait, Katie, if I wait to eat when I’m hungry, I might have to eat at my desk/in the car/while watching my kids? Won’t this also be bad?

I totally get your concern here.

And in an ideal world, you would have a quiet meal away from your desk/car/kids, but when you are choosing between the two, I’d say that hunger comes first. And often we can minimize distractions more than we think: sneaking away for 5 minutes from our desk, or eat that banana at a red light or while the kids are in ballet class.

But be aware that, once again, you’re in a non-ideal situation. If you’re a bit distracted, it can be harder to hear fullness signals, and you might be over-stimulated, so sugary foods might be more appealing than they otherwise would be. There are no hard and fast rules – just be careful and kind with yourself.

Just be careful and kind with yourself.

That’s the message, above all.

And now I’d love to hear from you
: What do you do when you’re afraid you won’t be able to eat for the next few hours? Would you like to try something new? Let me know in the comments so I can cheer you on.