Why Do We Eat When We’re Not Hungry?

We’ve all done it—made room for dessert when we’re already full or mindlessly polished off an entire pizza in one sitting. Sometimes we eat to fill emotional needs instead of our stomachs. Unfortunately, literally swallowing our anger or sadness often makes us feel worse instead of better.

Using food as an occasional reward—our favorite cookie or frozen yogurt for a job well done—is fine. But things get dicey when we regularly turn to food as a source of comfort and recognition. If our urge is to open the refrigerator or raid the pantry every time we feel stressed or overwhelmed, we’re only masking what’s really bothering us. 

What is emotional hunger?
There’s a big difference between how emotional hunger feels compared to physical hunger. Here’s how to recognize when we’re eating to soothe our emotions versus eating to sate our appetite:

We feel a sense of urgency. Emotional hunger comes on strong and demands instant gratification. Physical hunger develops more gradually and needing to eat doesn’t feel as dire (unless you skipped lunch!).

Part of what we crave is the rush. When we’re physically hungry, lots of different foods sound good—including veggies and protein. Emotional hunger makes us crave fatty, sugary or salty foods—like chips or cake—and it feels like nothing else will hit the spot.

We eat without awareness. Sometimes, before we know it, we’ve inhaled a whole bag of chips or pint of ice cream, without even enjoying it. When we eat in response to physical hunger, we’re typically more aware of what and how much we eat.

We’re not easily satisfied. We keep wanting more and more, often eating until we’re overstuffed. With physical hunger, we feel satiated when our stomach is full.

Our hunger stems from the brain, not the belly. Rather than sending us a message through a growl or a pang in our stomach, our emotional hunger expresses itself as a craving for a certain textured or type of food we can’t get out of our head.

Afterwards, we feel regret, guilt and shame. Feeling negatively about ourselves after we eat usually indicates that we know deep down we’re not eating for nutritional reasons.

What are some common triggers?
Learning to recognize why we’re vulnerable to emotional eating is the first step to breaking free from food cravings. Once we realize why we’re overeating, we can disrupt the cycle and begin to build a more positive relationship with food.

We all eat for different emotional reasons. Some of these might include:

– Stress
– Unexpressed anger, fear, sadness or anxiety
– Loneliness and boredom
– Social situations, like eating in certain environments or with specific people

One way to get to the root of your own personal triggers is to keep a “food and mood” diary where you can record what you eat and how you feel before and after. (You can also try Yes Health’s food photo journal.) You’ll start to recognize patterns so you can start to redirect your urges and find healthier ways to “feed” your feelings. 

One tip: Practice pausing
When you feel a food craving coming on, press pause. Take some deep breaths and check in with how you’re feeling. Giving yourself five minutes to choose a different way to comfort yourself can make all the difference. Remember you have more power over these urges than you think!

Here are a few healthy ways to help you bypass the fridge:

– Call a friend just to chat, and maybe schedule a fun activity so you have something to look forward to in the near future.

– Snuggle with a pet—they are great stress reducers!

– Dance around the house to a favorite song turned up LOUD!

– Take a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Better yet, make exercise a regular part of your day. It’s sure to boost your mood!

– Make yourself a cup of hot tea, draw bubble bath or book a massage or haircut—whatever makes you feel good. The key is to raise your spirits or reward yourself with a treat other than food.

– Curl up with a good book or watch a movie you’ve been wanting to see.

– Start learning a new skill, like playing piano, photography, knitting, painting, yoga, swimming or dance.

Give some of these ideas a try to start unraveling your own food-mood connections. Remember, making small shifts in old habits can add up to big changes in your health. 


For additional resources, check out these links:

Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch 

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating (website)

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, by Michelle May and Megrette Fletcher

Am I Hungry (website)

The Mindful Eating Cycle for Diabetes

The Hunger Scale, a simple tool to prevent overeating


Yes Health is a low-cost, weight loss and diabetes-prevention program committed to helping everyone live healthier, happier lives.