Why Do I Eat When I’m Not Hungry?

What do you do when you are exhausted and have finally checked everything off your to-do list? Reach for a snack and plop yourself in front of Netflix, of course. Were you hungry? If you’re like most people, you don’t even pause to check. It’s like second nature—snacks and TV, the reward for an accomplished day. When you’re young, your metabolism keeps things in check, but as we get older, the pounds creep on. Eventually, we might explore supplements, medication, exercise plans, etc. that help restore a healthier body composition hoping to lose weight, gain muscle, and control those awful food cravings that sabotage our weight loss efforts.

Appetite, hunger, and cravings are all controlled by feedback loops connecting the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. As you eat pleasure-generating foods, typically highly processed foods high in refined carbohydrates, added fats, and salt, pleasure circuits in the brain are stimulated. These circuits have evolved to protect us from scarcity, but when food is abundant, it can lead to overeating.1 Scientists who study these pathways say that there are biological similarities between the pathways that lead to food rewards and the pathways that are activated in people who are substance-dependent. 2 The environment, cognitive, sensory, metabolic, endocrine, and neural pathways are all used to control how much food a person eats. The rewarding properties of highly palatable foods can override satiety signals, leading to overconsumption.3

Boredom 

Most everyone gets bored at some point.4 Boredom alerts us that we cannot pay attention or find meaning in what we are doing. People manage boredom by:5

  • Increasing cognitive demands by doing more tasks at once
  • Boosting cognitive reserves with sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or sleep
  • Switching goals, so they better align with activities
  • Switching activities to better align with goals

Eating can become a habit that is used to increase cognitive demands, especially when you are bored and tempting snacks sit out in the open.5 The smell of freshly baked pastries, the crinkle of a snack bag, and the refrigerator opening can all trigger cravings. These cravings are worse when you are bored, and they are hard to resist. Boredom indicates a lack of cognitive demands stimulating your brain, and eating fills the void.

Boredom and mental fatigue go hand in hand. Foods and drinks high in sugar and caffeine are common go-to solutions to increase cognitive reserves. Many people reach for a carbohydrate or caffeine boost when they lack energy and need to increase it.

Dietary Restrictions

Just telling someone they can’t eat something is enough to trigger a craving. When you are working hard to improve your diet by limiting fats, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates, your brain notices, and you develop strong cravings for the very foods you are trying to resist. Researchers found that women who were dieting experienced strong cravings that were less resistible than those of women who were not dieting. This contrasts with previous research that showed no association between dieting, fasting, and cravings.6

Besides cravings, dieting can also lead to mood swings. When anxious or depressed, many people turn to food to boost their mood. This can sabotage weight loss efforts, especially when you are also dealing with age-related decreases in growth hormone. Growth hormone declines after age 30, making it harder to maintain fat-burning muscle mass. Sermorelin is a growth hormone secretagogue. It stimulates natural growth hormone release in the brain. Restoring healthy growth hormone levels can increase muscle mass and bone density, as well as sex drive, energy, and strength.

A table of healthy and unhealthy foods.

Emotional Eating

Jobs, school, financial and other stress, boredom, and family time demands can drive people to emotional eating, especially around the holidays. It’s not unusual for people to choose a healthy diet and exercise plan most of the time, but fall apart when stress builds up. Medicating your emotions with food can help you feel better temporarily, as it triggers reward signals in the brain. But reversing this trend can be very hard, and emotional hunger cannot be filled with food. It can cause unwanted weight gain.

If you are struggling with emotional eating, and have tried to manage it independently, but cannot, seek help with managing your emotions and dealing with stress.

If your weight has crept up into the higher range of overweight or into the range considered obese, products like semaglutide can help suppress your appetite, making it easier to develop better food and emotional management habits.

Food Substitutions 

When trying to eat healthier, many people try food substitutions, thinking a lower-calorie or healthier version of the food or drink they are craving would be better. Sometimes the food substitution increases your cravings rather than satisfying them.

According to the American Heart Association, sometimes the reason food substitutions do not work is that it is the texture, not the composition of the food, that you need to pay attention to:

  • To replace creamy ice cream- try avocado spread, yogurt, or peanut butter
  • To replace crunchy snacks- try whole-grain cereal, nuts, or plain popcorn
  • To replace high-calorie drinks- try flavored waters or lower-fat versions

External Influences

The prevalence of obesity and overweight has exploded in the last 50 years. Genetic predisposition, calorie demands, and nutritional values of foods do not really explain the increase. Environmental influences are much more likely to be responsible.3

Environmental influences that contribute to overeating include:7

  • Food processing
  • Lack of walkable environments
  • Lack of supermarkets supplying fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Peer influence
  • Social media and marketing
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Fast food
  • Portion size
  • Sugary, high-calorie, large drinks
  • Screens: TV, cell phone, video games
  • Elevators
  • Chemicals or environmental obesogens
  • Gut microbiome
A man looking into a refrigerator.

Lack of Sleep 

Sleep deprivation can cause weight gain. Lack of sleep makes it more difficult to resist cravings, affects insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, and changes your brain chemistry. Researchers found that sleep-deprived people have increased hunger and food intake throughout the day. This increase in calorie intake is not needed to fill a demand for more calories. Instead, research suggests that sleep restriction causes an increase in endocannabinoids in the brain. The endocannabinoid system in the brain controls feeding, appetite, and energy balance.8

Nerves 

Being nervous can also cause stress-eating. Nerves can cause many people to eat, even when they are not hungry. Stress and nervousness cause a faster heart rate, irritability, tension headaches, and increased stress hormones. These stress hormones prepare your body to either fight or flee. Everyday stress rarely requires you to do either. Your body pumps a lot of glucose into your bloodstream for your muscles to use for energy, and when the crisis is over, it stimulates hunger to replenish your energy stores.

Try these strategies to calm your nerves and prevent nervous eating.

  • Go for a walk
  • Exercise
  • Spend time in nature
  • Listen to music
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Try meditation
  • Call someone
  • Try yoga
  • Spend time with a child or pet
  • Go to bed early
  • Try deep breathing exercises
  • Read a book

Stress

Stress and anxiety can cause stress-induced cravings and overeating (sometimes, stress can cause you to lose your appetite). Cortisol and other stress hormones are a big reason why you feel more hungry and have more cravings after a stressful event. Modern stresses may even slow your metabolism, leading to weight gain.9

Read: 7 Tips to Reduce Anxiety and Manage Stress

Tips for Reducing Mindless Eating 

To reduce mindless eating, try some of these:

  • Check to see if you are hungry before reaching for food
  • Prepare for eating by sitting at a table with no distractions while you eat
  • If you are stressed or nervous, use exercise, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises to calm yourself
  • Practice good sleep hygiene and make sure you are getting 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep each night
  • Make vitamin and mineral-rich whole foods the backbone of your diet
  • Avoid highly processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and added fats
  • Put snacks and other craving triggers out of sight
  • Monitor your mood for anxiety, depression, or boredom, and pre-plan activities you can do that don’t involve eating if you notice these symptoms

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice. 

References

1. Berridge KC. ‘Liking’ and ‘wanting’ food rewards: Brain substrates and roles in eating disorders. Physiology & Behavior. 2009/07/14/ 2009;97(5):537-550. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.02.044

2. Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load. PLOS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0117959. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117959

3. Alonso-Alonso M, Woods SC, Pelchat M, et al. Food reward system: current perspectives and future research needs. Nutrition Reviews. 2015;73(5):296-307. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuv002

4. Chin A, Markey A, Bhargava S, Kassam KS, Loewenstein G. Bored in the USA: Experience sampling and boredom in everyday life. Emotion. Mar 2017;17(2):359-368. doi:10.1037/emo0000232

5.  Westgate EC. Why Boredom Is Interesting. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2020;29(1):33-40. doi:10.1177/0963721419884309

6. Massey A, Hill AJ. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite. 2012/06/01/ 2012;58(3):781-785. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020

7.  Nicolaidis S. Environment and obesity. Metabolism. 2019;100:153942. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2019.07.006

8.  Hanlon EC, Tasali E, Leproult R, et al. Sleep Restriction Enhances the Daily Rhythm of Circulating Levels of Endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoylglycerol. Sleep. Mar 1 2016;39(3):653-64. doi:10.5665/sleep.5546

9.  Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Habash DL, Fagundes CP, et al. Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity. Biol Psychiatry. Apr 1 2015;77(7):653-60. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018

This Article


Published: Dec 15, 2022

Tags:


Article Categories

More Questions?

Fill out the form below, and one of our treatment specialists will contact you.

Featured Articles

Common Injuries and Tips to Heal Faster

Medically reviewed by Leann Poston M.D. on 9/25/20 Let’s face it – life can be rough sometimes.  Injuries happen to us all at one time or another.  Depending on your balance, coordination…

Rejuvenate Your Skin and Your Life: Glutathione Injection Benefits

Glutathione injections are a popular procedure worldwide, especially in Asia and India, and can be used for both medical and cosmetic benefits. Glutathione injections have gained popularity in the …

Top 13 Nutrients to Boost Your Immune System

There is so much that the average person can do on a daily basis to help (or at least not hurt) their immune system’s ability to function. Besides being incredibly important for overall health, eat…
As Featured In
  • 1030 N Center Pkwy.
    Kennewick, WA 99336