When the urge to eat arises, factors other than hunger may be at play. Identifying your true needs and responding to them can keep you from eating just to eat.

Person grabbing a slice of cake in their breakroom, eating when not hungryShare on Pinterest
SolStock/Getty Images

Eating when we’re not hungry can sometimes lead to physical or emotional discomfort. So why do we do it?

Often, we reach for food to address a different need that our mind or body craves. By meeting our actual needs with things other than food, we can avoid overindulging and turn mindless eating habits into mindful eating practices.

Studies show that our eating habits are often tied to our emotions. This connection can lead us to keep snacking in a variety of situations when we don’t have an appetite. We may eat due to:

  • stress
  • boredom
  • nervousness
  • tiredness
  • cravings
  • grief
  • comfort
  • habit
  • thirst

Environmental or social factors can also be at play. Perhaps you feel obliged to take a slice of cake every time co-workers celebrate a promotion or birthday in the break room.

Or, it could be food insecurity — a lack of consistent access to groceries. Food insecurity has caused an estimated 42 million people in the United States to have anxiety over their next meal. Signs of food insecurity include:

  • eating when not hungry
  • always asking about food and not being choosy about what’s offered (in kids)
  • eating less (in adults)
  • skipping meals (in adults)
  • feeling hungry but not eating with others for fear of not having enough money for food

A medical explanation?

In some cases, a medical or mental health condition may be the cause of mindless eating. Possible conditions include:

An eating disorder — such as binge eating, pagophagia, or eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) — could also be affecting your habits and relationship with food. We’ll take a deeper look at how these conditions can affect you and discuss resources for support.

If you find yourself asking, “How do I stop eating food just because it’s there?” these six tips could be useful.

1. Find your true hunger

While it’s OK to reach for a snack at times, consider that you may be reaching for the wrong thing.

Maybe you’re looking to ease stress, or maybe you’re simply bored and looking to pass the time. Identifying where your true hunger lies can help you shift your focus from eating to addressing your underlying need — without reaching for the nearest snack.

2. Feed your true hunger

Now that you know what you’re actually hungry for, it’s time to consider how to satisfy your need.

If you’re craving comfort, you could snuggle up with your coziest blanket. Or if stress is weighing you down, you can engage in a relaxing activity.

3. Talk to the food

This one may sound somewhat silly, but hear us out.

If you know you need something other than food, try talking to your food rather than eating it. You can focus on what you truly need and directly ask the food you’re about to eat if it can fulfill it.

If you feel the answer is no, consider reaching for something else.

Try it out

“Sleeve of cookies, are you going to fulfill my need for a hug or comfort? No? Then I’ll go find someone to hug.”

Was this helpful?

4. Remind yourself urges come and go, but the affects of overindulgence last

Cravings are natural and often fleeting. While it’s OK to treat yourself occasionally, taking a moment before you indulge can allow the craving to pass. If it remains, consider how you might feel after you eat.

You may experience:

  • indigestion
  • heartburn
  • bloating
  • stomach aches or cramps
  • insomnia
  • disappointment
  • regret

In these moments, remember to be kind to yourself. Give yourself helpful, positive reminders rather than reprimands.

5. Stall for time

Sometimes, you just don’t have time in the moment to examine what’s really going on — and that’s OK!

Rather than caving in to your cravings, you could acknowledge that you’re not actually hungry and give yourself space to address your true hunger at a later time.

If the urge doesn’t pass, looking for ways to buy some time may help. Seek distractions, take a breath, or reach for a glass of water.

6. Get help

Those living with an eating disorder may experience a change in their relationship with food and eating.

Unhealthy eating, disordered eating, or eating nonfood items are all possible symptoms of eating disorders, such as:

  • Binge eating disorder. This is the most common eating disorder. A person eats a large quantity of food in a short span, which often causes an urge to eliminate, followed by feelings of shame, anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment.
  • Pica. People living with pica regularly eat nonfood items, such as soap, dirt, hair, sand, or glue.
  • Pagophagia. This form of pica involves the urge to eat or chew on ice.
  • EDNOS. Doctors often give a diagnosis of “EDNOS” to those who meet most — but not all — symptoms of other eating disorders. It can involve chewing and spitting out of food without actually swallowing.

There are many resources available to provide support. Consider reaching out to:

It’s natural to reach for food to satisfy our nonhunger needs. Boredom, stress, and even certain medical conditions can all contribute to mindless eating.

We can discover what we’re truly craving by identifying what our body or mind really want and considering different physical or mental health conditions.