Weight Loss

14 Reasons People Eat When They’re Not Hungry

We’ve all experienced hunger pangs- physical weakness, a grumbling stomach, headache and trouble concentrating. Most of us have these symptoms in the morning and close to meal times. But for some people, they occur far more frequently, or throughout the day. This is called polyphagia. Persistent hunger even when you’ve just finished eating may be due to many reasons. Here are some causes and ways to stop when you’re full.


All too often, eating is just a way to fill time, not your belly. But eating can only take up so much time. If you’re bored, look for other avenues to keep busy- take a walk, read, meet or talk to friends.

Because it’s there:

When food is in plain sight, it can be easy to grab a handful simply because it’s there. It looks good. You like it. It’s right in front of you. What’s the harm? Any food that is nearby, visible, and easily accessible is hard for anyone to turn down. If you’re unable to nix the trigger food altogether, move the treats out of sight-you’ll be less likely to grab a handful. The flipside of this works, too. When you keep lots of other healthy foods in sight, like a bowl of fruit on the table, you’re more likely to eat them instead.

Eating too many refined carbohydrates:

Cookies, pastries and white bread, while delicious, quickly spike the body’s blood sugar levels. But when they crash soon after, you’re left feeling even hungrier and craving more refined carbs to refuel the body once again-creating a vicious cycle. As I discussed in the GRADE diet, eating regularly to keep blood sugar levels stable and stave off feelings of hunger, snack instead on complex carbs that are high in fiber, such as almonds, apples, chia seeds or pistachios.

Thirst :

When pangs of hunger hit, the first thing we think of is food. Maybe what the body really needs is water. As people commonly misinterpret dehydration for hunger, the best way to find out what’s causing the feeling is to drink a large glass of water and see if hunger persists afterward. To prevent dehydration, a good rule of thumb is to take your body weight and divide it by two to determine the number of ounces of water you should be drinking every day (also read the post on hydration)

The clock says so:

Do you pull out your lunch when the clock strikes noon, just because it’s time for lunch? Or head to the kitchen at 6 p.m. just because that’s your typical dinner time? Don’t just eat when the clock tells you to. When mealtime hits, use it as a cue to check in with your current hunger level. Are you actually hungry? If so, whip up that healthy meal. If not, wait until your body tells you to eat, and ignore the clock.


It can be tempting to reach for food when experiencing stress, and just because of the temporary comfort it provides. When the body is tense, it triggers an overproduction of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, both of which can trick the body into thinking it needs to eat. Stress also reduces levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can encourage feelings of hunger. Instead of food, try practicing stress-reducing activities such as meditation, yoga, or reading (see post on stress eating)

Not getting enough sleep:

There are only so many hours in a day, and despite how vital sleep is to our overall health, it tends to be one of the first things to go. A lack of shut-eye could be contributing to more than just your inability to stay awake throughout the day. Not enough sleep can increase production of the hormone ghrelin (as I discussed in this post), making you feel hungry even if your body doesn’t require the food.

Eating too quickly:

If you’re ravenous at mealtime, it can be tempting to scarf down your food. Eating quickly doesn’t allow the brain adequate time to register that you’ve had enough to eat. As a result, you may continue feeling hungry even after you’ve had sufficient amounts, causing you to continue eating. Slow your eating pace by pausing between bites and putting the fork down to allow enough time for thorough chewing. Ban distractions that prevent you from paying attention to the fact you’re eating. Step away from the TV, computer or newspaper and just focus on eating.

Needing more protein and fat:

Do you find yourself constantly eating but never managing to stay full? It might be what you’re eating that’s causing persistent hunger. As mentioned earlier, refined carbs are a culprit of this, as they mess with blood sugar and are lacking essential nutrients like protein and fat. Protein and fat remain in the stomach longer, helping to maintain feelings of fullness. Incorporate more sources of these nutrients in every meal, such as fish, poultry, eggs, nuts or low-fat dairy.


Insatiable hunger can also be a side effect of taking certain medications such a as some antihistamines, antidepressants (called SSRIs), steroids, some diabetes medicines, and antipsychotic drugs. If you always feel the need to eat, even after consuming a large meal, ask your healthcare provider.

It’s free:

Don’t eat just because it’s a great deal (two for one at happy hour or all you can eat buffet) or samples (those great free booths at Costco and grocery stores!) Always check in with your body’s hunger level before you automatically fill your plate with a freebie.

You can’t say no:

It can be hard to say no, especially when friends or family offer you great food and won’t take no for an answer. Have excuses lined up and be honest. “I’m not hungry” works well, as does “I’m trying to lose weight.” If you end up with a piece of cake (or a whole cake to take home!) despite your protests, remember that you’re in control (it’s rare that people will try to force feed you). You can always set the fork down, share the cake with neighbors or co-workers, give it away or simply eat just a small bite. Just seeing you eat something may be all it takes to stop the offers.

Cleaning the plate:

Most of us grew up hearing, “There are starving kids who would love to eat that” to get us to finish our plate or eat our vegetables. Fortunately, we no longer need to feel guilty, we can just store away the extra food and eat it later. I’m always thrilled to have a ready made meal after a visit to the restaurant. At home, eat on smaller or red  plates to help prevent overeating, also as mentioned in the G.R.A.D.E post.

Because others are eating:

When you’re out with family or friends, it can be easy to eat when you’re past the point of fullness- especially if you’re engaged in conversation and not paying attention to your satiety level. It’s easy to indulge when others around you are eating, too. It makes you feel like you fit in. Research shows that our habits mimic our companions’ actions in these situations.

The key is to check in with your hunger level to see if you really need or want the extra food.

    -Dr. Courtney

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