The Fear of Wasting Food: 9 Reasons Why We Keep Eating Past Fullness & How to Actually Reduce Food-Waste

do you eat past fullness just to avoid wasting food sometimes? you need these 9 tips!

Does your heart sink at the thought of wasting food? Have you found yourself eating past the point of fullness just to avoid food waste? The fear of wasting food is deeply ingrained in many of us — often to the point of overeating just to avoid the guilt of wasting food.

Sometimes it’s a financial trigger, where we equate food going in the trash to dollar bills going down the drain. In turn, we eat until the food is gone to satisfy our moral and financial obligation to avoid food waste. Yet, the problem is never really addressed and gets compounded by the problem with overeating.

Let’s stop eating past fullness just for the sake of not “wasting” food and also take measures to actually reduce food waste to begin with. In this post, we will explore the psychology behind the fear of wasting food and what you can do to break the cycle of guilt, waste, and overeating.

Decoding the Fear of Wasting Food: 9 Underlying Reasons 

Through both my experiences and observations, it is my opinion that the fear of wasting food is primarily caused by: worries about money, moral obligations, parental influences, and/or something called “hedonic eating.” To further complicate matters, these triggers often interact and overlap, creating a multifaceted issue that requires a good, long look under the hood.

To help you understand your own patterns around food, I’ve created a list of (what I think are) the nine biggest psychological triggers around food-waste, particularly in relation to overeating. After this list, you will discover actions that you can take to reduce food waste and make an actual difference in the world, even if it’s the tiniest bit. (If you don’t see your personal trigger listed here, I invite you to share it in the comments section below!)

Here are the top psychological reasons why tend to overeat due to the fear or hate of wasting food:

1. Food Waste Feels Like a Sign of Disrespect to People Struggling with Hunger and Food Insecurity

In many cultures, leaving food on the plate is perceived as a sign of disrespect towards the cook or host. The discomfort of appearing disrespectful often leads us to overeat, even if we are already full.

However, the fear of wasting food due to the fear of being disrespectful goes even further than this. For some of us, myself included, we want to avoid food-waste because it feels disrespectful to the 828 million people in the world living in food deserts and struggling with hunger.

While finishing your plate may alleviate guilt from wasting food, it does nothing to actually help the people that we are concerned about. Instead of overeating to avoid guilt from food waste, we can make an actual difference through other actions. For example, I donate $15/month to Action Against Hunger.

When choosing to make charitable donations because of guilt with food waste, it’s really important to reframe your mindset from one of alleviating your own guilt to one of solidarity with those in need.

In the eye-opening book The Soul of Money (which I highly recommend), author Lynne Twist illustrates how charity without solidarity can inadvertently perpetuate dependence and inequality.

Without getting too far into it, The Soul of Money prompts us to reevaluate why and how we give. Instead of donating to ease our own discomfort about waste, our donations should be aimed at fostering sustainability and self-reliance in others, reflecting a respect and understanding of the recipients’ real needs and aspirations.

2. The Fear of Wasting Flavor or an Experience 

One prevalent fear that hinders us from taking food to-go or savoring leftovers is the concern that the taste, the “flavor,” or the experience won’t be as satisfying – and we all want to feel satisfied after we eat! Therefore, a reluctance to waste food because you don’t want to waste flavor or experience is usually a manifestation of hedonic eating.

Hedonic eating is distinctive from other types of emotional eating. Usually, emotional eating is driven by a desire to suppress negative emotions. On the contrary, hedonic eating arises from the pursuit of gaining positive emotions, experiences, and pleasure. 

The hedonic desire for a rich, sensory food experience can sometimes prevent us from packing leftovers to-go, because we want to savor every bite in the moment. This may lead to overeating as we try to fully indulge in the pleasure of taste and experience without leaving anything behind.

3. The Guilt of Wasting Food Piled on Top of Emotional Eating 

Many of us use food as a source of comfort – and there is nothing wrong with this on occasion. But when it’s a repeat pattern that causes us to gain weight and feel unfulfilled, it becomes a problem. 

When our lives are stressful, we may consciously or subconsciously use food and physical fullness to subdue emotional discomfort like loneliness, stress, depression, and more.

When our lives are already stressful, and we feel guilty when we waste food, the guilt can pile on top of emotions that we are already avoiding. This can cause us to eat even more food when we aren’t hungry to continue subduing our emotions. 

To address this, it’s important to find ways of coping without food. Mindfulness practices (like the Stop, Drop, & Feel method to stop binge eating especially), journaling, therapy, and nurturing interpersonal relationships can help fulfill emotional needs in healthier ways.

4. “Eating for the Hunger to Come” to Reduce Food Waste

“Eating for the Hunger to Come” describes an attempt to avoid food waste by ‘buying’ future calories. In other words, we reason that if we eat more now in order to avoid wasting food, we will just eat less later. Initially, the math seems like it checks out, but it doesn’t take into consideration our compulsions and other potential patterns like night eating.

If we eat past fullness in order to clean our plate and avoid food waste, but then we also find ourselves eating in front of the fridge at midnight due to unwanted and often unintentional binge eating habits, then we weren’t very successful at avoiding food waste. The food was wasted anyway.

Furthermore, it’s not a good practice to intentionally undereat the day after overeating. Even though we think that, mathematically, each instance “cancels out” the other, it overlooks the metabolic changes induced by restriction. In other words, overeating in order to avoid food waste followed by undereating to “cancel it out” can perpetuate the restrict-binge cycle and lead to weight gain and an unhealthy relationship with food.

This perpetuates the frustration and resentment we feel because we were only trying to do the right thing, but then it backfires. Instead of remaining stuck in this cycle of food-guilt and food waste, it helps to learn how to eat based on your own body’s signals and also take clear steps to reduce food waste to begin with (which is discussed later on).

“Eating for the Hunger to Come” is also one of 40 video lessons about eating psychology in my online course, Food Normal. If you struggle with feeling compelled to eat for reasons other than hunger, that course contains the answers you’re looking for.

5. The ‘Clean Your Plate’ Mentality 

Growing up, many of us were taught the importance of finishing everything on our plates. Whether it was parents insisting we “clean our plate” before leaving the table, or school cafeterias admonishing waste, this principle has been deeply ingrained in most of us from a young age.

This conditioned eating pattern completely overlooks the importance of the body’s natural wisdom for self-maintenance, or the body’s ability to regulate itself and its natural set point weight by signaling hunger and fullness. By insisting on cleaning the plate, we get used to ignoring our body’s signals, which results in overeating and a disconnection from our intuition, making it that much harder to get back into balance.

The slightly longer story: Learn how to get back in touch with your intuition and reach a healthy weight in my free 13-page (and beautifully-illustrated) ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating.

6. The Deep-Rooted Effects of Childhood Experiences and Family Dynamics

If you grew up in an environment where there was constant concern about not having enough food, the apprehension about wasting food could be even more deeply rooted. This unconscious conditioning may lead to overeating in an effort to avoid waste.

Here are three examples that demonstrate how unconscious conditioning can trigger a fear of food waste and subsequent overeating:

  • Sibling Competition: If you have numerous or older siblings, mealtimes might have been a race. Siblings, especially those older or larger, could be quick to go for seconds, creating a sense of food scarcity. This experience could lead to a habit of overeating or hoarding food to ensure you get your ‘fair share.’
  • Parental Influence: Parents, especially those who’ve experienced food scarcity or hardships, may instill the ‘clean your plate’ rule, emphasizing the importance of not wasting food. While this rule aims to prevent waste, it can lead to a lifelong fear of wasting food and a tendency to overeat.
  • Periods of Scarcity: If there were times during your childhood when food was scarce, perhaps due to financial struggles, this could create a lasting impression. These periods could trigger a deep-rooted fear of not having enough, causing a compulsion to overconsume or stockpile food in the present.

These learned behaviors and deep-seated beliefs from childhood can significantly influence our relationship with food and our attitudes towards food waste. Recognizing and challenging these inherited beliefs is key. 

Reflecting on why you hold these beliefs and how they’re influencing your eating habits can help. Journaling is often a powerful activity for this because separating your thoughts onto paper can help “unlock” beliefs that you hold subconsciously but have not yet pulled into your conscious awareness.

My bestselling workbook Why We Do the Things We Do is designed to help with just that. Although it’s not targeted towards food waste specifically, it can help you better understand all the other subconscious reasons why you may turn to food when you aren’t hungry.

7. Wasting Food Feels Like Wasting Money

On a Quora thread about whether or not food waste bothers people, a woman shared, Now food isn’t cheap and I work hard for my money, in my eyes you are just taking your money and throwing it in the garbage bin (which I dare you to do and not look back.)”

Many of us can relate to this. We spend $20 on a meal, and if we get full halfway through, we feel like we are essentially throwing $10 down the drain. Even if we take it to-go it can trigger the fear of wasting flavor or experience.

However, unlike those who view wasted food as throwing money in the trash, I personally like to reframe it as throwing money in a piggy bank that’s an investment in my health. The money never comes out of the piggy bank, but the more money invested, the better off my health is.

When we eat past fullness to avoid food waste, we likely won’t undereat later to “make up for it.” Therefore, being willing to throw some food away can be good for your health, because it means that you’re not overeating – and not overeating helps reduce your risk for many diseases.

8. The Fear of Being Judged for Wasting Food

Ever had the nagging concern that people might be silently judging you for wasting food? It’s a familiar feeling for many of us, amplified perhaps by societal and media narratives stressing the importance of avoiding food waste. 

The fear of being judged (something that falls into social anxiety) may inadvertently push you into overeating and clearing your plate simply to avoid leaving anything behind. However, it’s important to understand that your eating habits are your personal business. 

If someone throws you a sidelong glance, it might not have anything to do with you or your food. They could be absorbed in their own dilemmas. Plus, we only assume that others are judging us because we’re judging ourselves in the exact same way. If you struggle with feeling judged for wasting food, you are likely your biggest critic — and in the long-run, this is good news because it means you have the power to grow past it.

It’s crucial to remember that you’re not a “bad person” for occasionally wasting food. If you’re feeling guilty, it’s actually a sign that you care! While thinking ahead and planning meals can help reduce waste, on the occasions when it’s unavoidable, allow yourself to let it go. Concentrate instead on other positive actions you can take, which will be discussed in great detail soon.

9. Dealing with Environmental Guilt from Food Waste

If we stop wasting food, we could reduce about 6-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. That’s quite a staggering statistic! I personally feel like this is one area where our fears about wasting food are justified, because wasting less food does make a positive impact on the earth; and the tips up next will help with this.

However, when we dig a little deeper, we see that eating more than our fill just to avoid waste doesn’t really help the environment as much as we think. Sure, it keeps food out of landfills and reduces some greenhouse gas emissions, but there’s a more significant aspect we often miss: overproduction.

When we continually purchase and consume more than we need in countries where there’s already plenty of food, we’re creating a demand that ramps up food production, which is a significant contributor to environmental issues. Excess farming means more deforestation, more water usage, more transport emissions, more packaging, the list goes on.

Overbuying and overeating don’t just tip the scales on our health, but they also weigh heavily on our planet. Next time you’re feeling stuffed but guilty about wasting food, remember that the best way to respect our planet isn’t by overeating, but by conscious consuming. Up next, you’ll learn exactly how to do just that.

Addressing the Fear of Wasting Food: Practical Tips and Advice

“It either goes in your mouth or in the trash. Either way, it is wasted.” ‑Geneen Roth

As you can see, our assumptions around wasting food and overeating to avoid it can be quite misleading. We often end up acting out of good intentions, yet missing the bigger picture. The good news is that there are ways to reduce food waste that don’t require finishing your plate when you’re already full. 

Here are some strategies that can help you make a real difference with food waste:

  • Embrace meal planning: Plan your meals in advance to prevent unnecessary purchases and optimally use what you have. This can also apply to eating out! If you know you’re going out to eat with friends or family, you can plan on taking food home with you so that you’re less likely to keep eating just because it’s in front of you.
  • Take it to-go: Whether it’s a meal from a restaurant or a meal that someone cooked for you, eat until you are full, and then take the rest to go. If you struggle with stopping when you are full, see my tool to stop binge eating: the Stop, Drop, & Feel. And if you struggle with saying no when someone offers you food, learn how to manage guilt around food so that it doesn’t lead to overeating.
  • Make the most of leftovers: When you do take food to-go, transform leftovers into new meals like stir-fries or soups. Perhaps the best time to reach for leftovers are the moments when you’re hungry but nothing sounds good. Typically, a small, nourishing meal will satisfy — including leftovers.
  • Create a weekly “clean out meal”: To reduce food waste, you can use food nearing the expiration date to create a “clean-out” meal that puts the food to use instead of going to waste. You might need to get creative, and that’s part of the fun!
  • Find joy outside of food: If hedonic eating resonates with you, then it’s time to add joy to your life outside of food so that you find satisfaction elsewhere. By creating a diverse bouquet of happiness sources (yum!), you fill your life with joy, happiness, and experiences without it all revolving around food.

Can Throwing Away Food Be as Ritualistic As Throwing Away Prized Possessions?

My last tip is inspired by Marie Kondo, the bestselling author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Based on the Japanese culture of Shintoism (which believes that every object has a soul), she encourages us to thank an object for the role/purpose it served before throwing it away. I personally love applying the same principle to food.

Yes, that’s right – I’m encouraging you to thank your food for the purpose it has served in your life before you throw it away. Sometimes, when food can’t go anywhere but in the trash, it can help us make peace with food waste by thanking it for the value it provided; because even if you didn’t eat it, it likely provided value!

a piece of egg and toast arranged in a minimalist fashion

Either you can join me and Marie Kondo (assumingly) and thank your food when you throw it away, or you can start making smaller meals to avoid it altogether — the choice is yours

For example, if you bought too much kale and only ate half of it and feel guilty for throwing away the rest, have a moment before it hits the trash where you thank it for the role it served in your life – which is perhaps a sense of security knowing that you have an abundance of healthy, wholesome food in your fridge. It really is a great privilege.

Or let’s say you have to throw away leftovers because you haven’t mastered the art of a “clean out meal” yet (and that is perfectly okay – aim for progress, not perfection). Before tossing it out, take a moment to thank the food for providing you with a sense of abundance and also thank yourself for not overeating just to avoid food waste!

Being Mindful of Reducing Food Waste While Making Peace with Leaving Food Uneaten

The fear of wasting food and its psychological link to overeating is complex and deeply personal. It’s influenced by various factors including cultural norms, personal beliefs, and environmental consciousness.

By acknowledging and understanding these underlying triggers, we can start to break free from the cycle of overeating due to fear of food waste while also taking actions that limit food waste to begin with.

Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below! Do you think I missed any triggers? What did you think of all this? I’d love to know! This is one of my most-commented posts, and I hope you’ll join in on the conversation below.

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38 thoughts on "The Fear of Wasting Food: 9 Reasons Why We Keep Eating Past Fullness & How to Actually Reduce Food-Waste"

  1. Emi Lookersays:

    Love it, Kari!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks Emi!

  2. Evasays:

    Excellent article. I have another one for you that goes along with 4. Make a difference. I feel very guilty to throw away food due to environmental reasons. If I cooked more than needed, this is a big issue for me, even if it is leftover food from my kids. I try to now just put it into the fridge but then something else goes bad. Buying only what is really needed is the ultimate goal of course..

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Agreed, Eva! It’s a fine balance between diligence and compassion.

  3. Tatianasays:

    Such a great text! Thank so much for sharing this!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks Tatiana!

  4. Andrew Linsays:

    It’s a tough one for me. In my short life so far I’ve been through 2 financial crises where I didn’t have enough food and was forced to lose 20-30 pounds (I know, it’s not a dream come true!). So the financial one still kind of makes sense to me, I have to pack up the pounds when I’m able.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      I’m sorry to hear about the hardships Andrew. This is why these blocks are the hardest — they’re so REAL.

  5. Nastassjasays:

    I have a tendency to finish food I don’t even like because of not wanting to waste the money I spent on it, and while I don’t have a binge eating problem, your advice here helped motivate me to go ahead and throw away a package of God-awful chips my roommate gave to me to finish. Money well-spent.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Rock on Natassja!!

  6. Tedsays:

    For me it’s not so much about wasting food, it’s about viewing food as an opportunity. If I see something I like, I wonder when the next time I’m going to have the opportunity to eat it again. I also feel like I have to take it now before someone else does.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Oooo it’s almost like there’s a little FOMO in there. I might need to add this to the article!! Thanks for your input

      1. Chloesays:

        FOMO is a huge part of it for me as well. And I shame myself for that reasoning because I purchase food items to feel included and end up wasting a lot of it on the process. I struggle with this a lot especially in moments with my family when they handle the food cost. I feel I disrespected their kindness and wasted a “gift” granted to me.

        I really appreciate the insights in this article. Viewing and appreciating the other purposes food serves outside of simply consuming all of it is a takeaway I want to work on applying, thank you!:)

        1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

          Thanks for sharing Chloe. I think a lot of us can relate to you!! It is so hard not to feel pressure to eat something that was bought and paid for, especially if family dynamics are involved. You are so strong!! Keep me posted on your journey 🙂 xo

  7. Ellesays:

    Well dam, grow up poor. Wasting food feels like a sin. I think it’s because I see money on my plate and not food. I’d be throwing away $3.32 not half my paste.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      I get it, and this is why these are some of the hardest blocks to overcome <3

  8. Theasays:

    For me personally its because i feel like if i waste my food then i am wasting all the CO2, fuel and animals used to make it. Also I feel like I am polluting the earth with even more waste. I find it really hard then to even leave a bite.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      This is interesting Thea! I can definitely relate. Do you think it would help if you started donating $15/month to nonprofits that improved the environment and fought animal cruelty?

      1. Random Googlersays:

        That doesn’t make sense though. You could have still donated money. You’re still letting the animal or plant die in vain. Every food is sacred, I think we should feel bad to waste it. Otherwise it’s like not acknowledging a wrong ot evil.
        That said, I think prevention is always best for this problem. If only the normal mindset is “It is better to cook / order less than more.” – which sadly isn’t the social norm =\

        1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

          I love this comment. Let’s say you go out to eat and have a pasta dish, but feel full halfway through. But you also have your kid’s soccer tournament afterwards (i.e. there will be no fridge near you anytime soon), so you can’t take the leftovers to go. It should be okay to “waste” half that dish of pasta. Whether if it goes in your mouth or not, it’s wasted. Maybe you’re thinking of asking for less next time? But what if you thought you were really hungry when you first ordered? There needs to be a little room for error and a constant strive for balance.

          I don’t think the people that follow Psycho-Spiritual Wellness are wasteful monsters. I think they’re really good human beings that always strive to do their best and sometimes accidentally order too much food, and then overeat because they feel guilty. For these people, it should be okay to leave half a plate of pasta uneaten, guilt-free.

  9. Monasays:

    I think Ted from Oct 2019 probably is my reason also. When is the next opportunity to have this along with wasting money. Sometimes I eat cause I am bored. And that didn’t satisfy me maybe this will. I look forward to your Tuesday Newsletters.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks Mona! I’m glad you’re on my newsletters because that’s where my best content is 🙂

  10. Lilysays:

    Hi, that part where you discussed ‘You think that wasting food is disrespectful to those living without access to adequate food’ can you please expand on that? I struggle with that a lot and I’m not sure how to recover from it, do you have any tips? It’s how I justify overeating and i just feel so bad throwing away food that is leftover. Thanks!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Hi Lily! I’m so glad you shared this! Because, as you can see in this article, I wasn’t sure how many other people felt this way. For me, it helped to start donating to a charity. It relieved the guilt of wasting food. Because as Geneen Roth said, it either goes in your mouth or in the trash, either way it is wasted. Once I realized that overeating was doing nothing for the people I was thinking about (those living without adequate food), I tried to make an actual difference by donating to Actions Against Hunger. I hope this helps! And if it doesn’t, leave another comment and we can keep digging. xo

    2. Allysays:

      I enjoyed your article. What’s your advice for responding to the childhood cultural message that not graciously accepting and eating all of the food provided by a host (eg at a family member or friends house for dinner) is extremely disrespectful to the host serving the meal?

      1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

        Hi Lily! I love your question!!! My response (based on the limited information I have) is to celebrate being an adult, and being able to make adult decisions. Who cares if someone is going to judge you for not graciously accepting food that was provided by the host? If it means disrespecting your body, no thanks. And if anyone guilt trips you for not eating even though you’re not hungry, that person is not being very nice. You get to decide where you create the boundary, and you get to defend your boundaries.

  11. Ninasays:

    My reason is superstition I guess. I have the feeling that if I don’t eat the food in my plate, I am snubbing the universe that gave me so much and it will punish my arrogance by depriving me in the future. I know how irrational it sounds but I can never get rid of that feeling. I also grew up poor.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Hi Nina, thanks for sharing! While it may feel irrational, it sounds like you are just trying to do the right thing. And who can blame you for that? I hope you can find compassion for yourself, by seeing the innocence in your actions <3

  12. Norahsays:

    Great article!!
    I have one question though: How do you deal with the idea of wasting the KIND of food? Like, right now I‘m very low on money. I have enough stored food to last me for weeks. Mostly things like pasta, soups etc. that I bought myself, other things that were given to me. Sometimes my mother drops off random perishable things like veggies. There are some things I generally like, especially the ones I bought myself, but also a lot I don’t like. Like today, I dived deep into nutrition articles and remembered a time where I ate paleo-ish (but not in a diet-y way, rather to gain more health benefits) and I felt good then. Then I got the urge to throw out the pasta, chocolates and artificial things because ultimately, they do me no good. But I think „I bought them myself, in a phase where I wanted them, it’s stupid to suddenly want to go gluten free or whatever and then chuck it!“. Now I‘m hungry and debating whether for the next meals, I should spend the little money I have on things that I want to rather eat right now or at least use up the stuff I have even though it’s not what sounds best. So it’s not about being full and keep on eating or so, it would actually be smarter to first eat my moms veggies (she brought tomatoes – I don’t like those watery tomatoes though! I only like the cherry kind – I feel so stupidly picky!) and the salad I have before going out and getting a steak or organic joghurt . What do you think?

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Hi Norah! There’s a lot going on here! I would actually recommend focusing first on the Stop, Drop, and Feel before trying to decipher any more of this. It can help reduce all the “noise” around food, so that you can gain more clarity on your own. I really do hope it helps. <3

  13. Antonsays:

    What a fantastic list! 3 of these are me and my whole problem. Much impressed. Well done ????

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Ooo thank you Anton! Would be curious to know your top 3!

  14. Joysays:

    Thanks so much for this article. It helped address something with me. I am so glad to know that I am not alone.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      You are most definitely not alone 🙂 in fact, if everyone from the comments section here were in a room, we’d be having an amazing party, celebrating how beautifully HUMAN we all are. xoxo

  15. Karen Strebsays:

    I’ve been working on this for awhile. I used to feel guilty throwing out food that went bad…I would eat leftovers for lunch to avoid throwing it out…now I’m working on my eating habits so have to do mindful cooking and shopping….if I have to throw out food, it goes outside to the animals…yes they actually eat it lol but not bad stuff, luckily in Norway, it’s very easy to recycle so there’s actually food recycling. So I’ve been working on all these tips for awhile before I read your article. It’s nice to have confirmation.
    I’m looking more into the hedonic eating…that totally explains my lack of self control on my favorite things…now how to stop it …haha

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Hello Karen! It’s so fun to see a comment from so “far away” (Norway being quite far from the States!) and I love that you were already doing all of these things. I especially LOVE that Norway has easy ways of recycling food waste. It is one of many areas that I wish we did better over here. Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts 🙂

  16. Regina Potasniksays:

    Definitely the hedonic eating for me

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Me and everyone else reading this definitely feel you <3

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