When you’re not hungry but still want to eat, it’s important to look past the surface level of food. It could be physiological, especially if you’re stressed or sleep deprived. But it could also be psychological, and we’re about to dive deep into some eating psychology.
If you’re new around here, this blog is the home of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness: a path to stop overeating rooted in psychology and spirituality. If you struggle with the desire to eat when you’re not hungry, you’re in the right place.
Why you’re not hungry but still want to eat
Here’s the good news: you’re not a crazy person for wanting to eat when you’re not hungry!
I know first-hand how crazy it can feel though, because I used to struggle with overeating, binge eating, night eating, and all the unwanted eating things too!
I was stuck in the endless yo-yo dieting trap, until I turned inward. It turns out that overeating was never about the food. Instead, it was about the psycho-spiritual elements that dieting completely misses.
So let’s skip the food-stuff and dive straight into some physiology and psychology.
Here are some common non-food-related reasons why you’re not hungry but still want to eat — and how to stop.
1. You’re not sleeping well and it’s affecting your hunger hormones
Have you ever noticed that you feel extra hungry on the days that you don’t sleep well?
This is because sleep has an effect on your hormones, including the hormones that control your hunger.
Sleeping less than 8 hours a nigh has been shown to increase levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you want to eat. But that’s not all.
A lack of sleep also decreases levels of leptin, the hormone that makes you feel satisfied and stop eating.
The result of this winning combination? The desire to eat even though you’re not hungry. It’s time to get some much-needed shut eye!
2. You’re exercising at a high intensity, which can suppress your appetite
When you’re not hungry but still want to eat, sometimes you actually are hungry, but you just can’t feel it. High intensity exercise is a surprising culprit.
Sometimes exercising at a high intensity can actually suppress your appetite so that you don’t feel hungry even when you are.
So if you’re not hungry but still want to eat, and you have done some high intensity exercise recently, ask yourself, “What is the kindest thing I can do for my body right now?” The answer is rarely to not eat.
After high-intensity exercise, the kind thing is usually to eat good food that nourishes and sustains you. But you are the expert on your body, so only you will know what’s best.
3. You’ve upped your caffeine, which can also suppresses your appetite
Coffee and all caffeine-containing drinks are also appetite suppressants.
And while this might sound like a useful tool for weight loss, don’t fall for that trap!
Coffee often leads to overeating because the appetite suppression causes you to undereat. And when the pendulumn swings too far in one direction (eating too little) it swings the other way (eating too much).
Balance is the goal, so start paying attention to your caffeine intake. If you have a daily cup of coffee in the morning, it’s not a big deal. Your body develops a tolerance for it.
But on the days when you go for an extra cup of coffee, and you’re not hungry but still want to eat, remind yourself that you actually could be hungry. Then do the kindest thing possible.
If you realize you haven’t eaten since breakfast, and it’s already 7pm, maybe the kind thing is to fix yourself a turkey avocado sandwich for some good carbs, fats, and protein. Sounds very kind and delicious, if you ask me!
4. You’re stressed and it triggers hormones that make you want to eat
What if you’re well-rested, caffeine-free, and haven’t exercised at a high intensity today? The next place to look is stress. Having a stressful life — whether it’s from work, finances, childcare, or something else — will affect your body.
Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, which weakens your digestion. After all, if you need to run like mad to save yourself from a real threat, digestion is secondary to your ability to think and move.
As a result, stress can suppress your appetite. However, many of us experience the opposite: we eat too much when we’re stressed (I’m right there with you!) which would be more emotional eating than a physiology. So let’s discuss emotional eating next!
5. You’re avoiding something and not aware of it
Emotional eating is arguably the biggest trigger for eating when you’re not hungry. Fortunately, you’re in the right place for this! Helping you to stop emotional eating is what I do here with Psycho-Spiritual Wellness.
The premise behind my work is that, whenever there’s a desire to eat when you aren’t hungry, there’s an unwanted feeling that you’re not aware of or not willing to feel. And this is where my tool called the Stop, Drop, & Feel comes into play.
Here’s a video that explains how it works. (I filmed it before it became my #1 tool to stop overeating, so please pardon my wet hair!)
The Stop, Drop, & Feel involves getting curious about your feelings during the moments when you feel pushed towards compulsion (like wanting to eat when you’re not hungry). When you do this, the desire to eat when you aren’t hungry fades.
I’ve watched it get rid of my sugar cravings and the desire to overeat time and time again. Oh, and speaking of sugar…
6. You’re feeling drawn towards sugar, and it’s not just sugar addiction
Many years ago, I felt addicted to sugar. I’d be hit with a sugar craving in the middle of the day when I wasn’t hungry, and I struggled to resist it.
Then I stared doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel whenever I had a sugar craving, and I was very surprised that I would end up in tears every single time. Say what?!
But more importantly, the desire for sugar always went away. Say what what?!
It turns out that my sugar addiction was really just emotional eating. Though, at the time, I had no idea that I was sad. I just thought I was a sugar addict. But it turns out that emotions were driving my desire to eat when I wasn’t hungry.
Fortunately, when these feelings are address with tools like the Stop, Drop, & Feel, they fade. I hope this inspires you to give the tool a try. It really does work.
7. You’re bored, and it’s another big trigger for eating when you’re not hungry
Boredom eating is a thing — a big thing. I have coached and talked to many women about it. And in my opinion, boredom is never the root cause of overeating.
I don’t doubt that you feel the desire to eat when you’re bored. But I’m also confident that when you dig deeper, you’ll find something more than boredom.
For example, when I’m feeling bored and want to eat even though I’m not hungry, and then I pause to do the Stop, Drop, & Feel, I often find a slew of other emotions going on, like stress, anxiety, loneliness, or some lovely combination thereof.
The boredom was just the surface-level manifestation of all those deeper (and much more unpleasant) emotions.
But you now know what to do with emotional eating: feel those feelings, and try the Stop, Drop & Feel!
Free download! If you like what you’re reading so far, you’ll love my free ebook called The Spirirual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. It comes with a free 5-day course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness to catch you up to speed. Grab the ebook + free course here »
8. You’re a “hedonic eater”
Many of my clients and readers are intrigued by the phrase “hedonic eating.” It’s a phrase I adopted from clinical research about eating past hunger that illustrates the seductiveness (my word, not theirs) for high-fat, palatable foods. This includes premium cakes and cookies, not week-old leftovers — and this is an important distinction!
If you find yourself binge eating a bag of chips at midnight — but these chips don’t really do it for you, they’re just there — then it’s not hedonic eating. It’s likely emotional eating and the Stop, Drop, & Feel is your best tool.
But if you find yourself binge eating your favorite flavor of ice cream — the flavor that just really does it for you — then it’s likely hedonic eating. And this type of eating can be remedied through JOY.
When we don’t get joy from our lives, we will compulsively seek it from food — particularly the high-fat, palatable that we love and enjoy.
If you resonate with this, try to focus on getting your joy outside of food and see if it has any effect on your cravings when you’re not hungry but want to eat.
9. You’re tired — and you’re “eating for energy”
I’d like to use a short story to explain this particular cause for eating when you aren’t hungry.
I once went on vacation with a friend that was also a yoga instructor. Her connection with her intuition was something I admired.
One day we had plans to hit the beach after a morning hike. But when we stopped at the hotel after the hike, she wanted a nap and I wanted a burger. But I realized that I wasn’t actually hungry. I was eating for energy!
I just wanted to eat to keep my momentum going and make it to the beach. And I’ll be honest, I was very jealous when she decided to nap for energy instead of eating for energy. Why hadn’t I thought of that?!
I’ll tell you why: because I’m a high performing person, and it affects all areas of my life, especially my relationship with food. I know how to push push push when there’s something I want to achieve.
Being with my yogi friend helped me realize that I can choose to skip an activity, especially when it helps honor my body’s need for rest.
10. You’ve been trained to ignore your hunger through dieting
Sometimes we feel like we are overeating when really we’re just eating. It’s not that we’re eating too much, it’s just that we think we’re eating too much.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you might not think this applies to you, but you might be surprised. It’s often the goal of weight loss that causes us to undereat without thinking of it as a problem.
But it is a problem when you’re literally starving yourself and pushing your body into survival mode, which triggers binge eating and yo-yo dieting in the long-run.
So if you’re not hungry but still want to eat, you could actually be hungry but you just can’t feel it. And this problem slowly goes away as you learn to eat intuitively instead of relying on diets and food rules.
11. You’re undereating (which is surprisingly correlated with overeating)
To see if this applies to you, take an objective look at your day of eating. Have you eaten enough? And I’m talking about enough to sustain yourself, not to lose weight.
When people come to me for help with overeating, and I happen to learn what they’ve eaten in a day, I’m often shocked by how little they’ve eaten, while feeling so guilty after eating! It’s almost like diet culture has convinced us that eating 800 calories in a day is somehow okay and if you’re eating more than that you’re a horrible person!
But you’re not a horrible person, and restricting your diet too much stresses your body out, slows your metabolism, and triggers night eating. There is plenty of clinical evidence that shows that dieting doesn’t work.
So if you haven’t eaten much during your day, and you’re not hungry but still want to eat, the solution is to eat. Give your body the fuel it needs to function and step out of survival mode.
If you’re worried about your weight loss goals, you should know that you can’t lose weight in survival mode anyway (at least, not easily). Your body needs to be relaxed to release weight.
What to do when you are not hungry but want to eat
Alright, now you know why you’re not hungry but still want to eat. Now, what can you do about it?
From a physiological perspective, it would be a great idea to get 8 hours of sleep every night, never get stressed, and be perfectly balanced about how you eat and exercise…
Of course, if it was that simple, none of us would still be reading! And this is where Psycho-Spiritual Wellness comes into play. Instead of looking at the surface, let’s dig deeper and ask why.
Why aren’t you sleeping? Because you’re overworking yourself and have poor boundaries? Your boundaries need to be addressed first. Why are you prone to hedonic eating? Because you stopped participating in your hobbies? Your joy needs to be addressed first!
This is the true psychology behind overeating! It’s not about using smaller plates or building more willpower. It’s about understanding the belief behind the desire to overeat, and starting there.
A tool to help you get started
My workbook on self-sabotage, Why We Do the Things We Do, is perfect for this. It helps you perform self-inquiry strategically and gain surprising insight into your subconscious beliefs.
In order for it to work, you have to put pen to paper. You can’t think these things through in your head because your mental chatter gets in the way.
When I did this workbook after I finished making it (like any good chef that tastes her own cooking), I still had some a-ha moments. That’s how powerful self-inquiry is when you ask the right questions and put pen to paper.
If you struggle with the desire to eat when you aren’t hungry, you need this workbook.
That moment when you’re not hungry but still want to eat is inevitable, but at least you’re prepared now!
As you can see, there are many different reasons for wanting to eat when you’re not hungry. Some of them are simple, like consuming caffeine without realizing it’s an appetite suppressant. But many of them go deeper.
When we don’t take the time to slow down, we may end up reaching for sugar without realizing we’re upset or reaching for hedonic foods without realizing we have no joy in our lives.
Fortunately, once you develop awareness for these things, you can start taking steps to improve the other areas in your life and allow it to trickle over into your relationship with food.
If you’d like more tips on the psycho-spiritual aspect of eating, don’t miss my free ebook below called The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating.
It comes with a free 5-day course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, and it’s really good stuff!