Why do we eat when we’re not hungry?

Written by Kate Battocchio, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist

Do you ever feel that you can’t control yourself around food? Do you often find yourself eating something that you “shouldn’t be eating”, then wind up feeling guilty and regretting it the next day?

We don’t just eat when we are hungry. For some of us, eating is a way of coping with unpleasant feelings, like stress, anxiety and depression.  This is called “emotional eating” or “comfort eating” and it may be something that you are not even aware that you do.

People of all shapes and sizes, with or without diabetes, can struggle with emotional eating. For people with diabetes, emotional eating is a problem because “mood food” tends to be high in kilojoules, added sugar and saturated fats. Research has shown that the brain responds to fatty and sugary foods by increasing the secretion of the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which make us feel pleasurable feelings. So it is little wonder that every time you feel emotional, cravings for sweet or fatty foods ensue.

Building awareness of the feelings, thoughts and situations that lead you to eat can be useful in overcoming emotional eating. Four common triggers are:

  1. Eating for comfort – you may be feeling lonely, upset, angry, anxious or depressed for a variety of reasons. Common situations include when you are at home alone, after having an argument, or when you are feeling shame or guilt for “failing” your diet.
  2. Rewarding yourself – you may be feeling stressed, or have just completed a stressful task. Common situations include when you have achieved something good or done well at something; or made it through a stressful day or week at work.
  3. Eating for acceptance – you feel the need to be compliant in a group situation in order to meet the needs of other people, feel a part of the group and maintain acceptance in the group. You also fear missing out on the experience. For example you meet friends for coffee and because everyone decides to order cake you feel compelled to join in too.
  4. Boredom – you may be feeling lonely, or finding it difficult to concentrate on a task. Your mind starts to wander and eating is a way of procrastinating; it gives you a new purpose, something different to do for a short time.

Keeping a food and mood diary can help you to become aware of the feelings, thoughts and situations that lead you to reach for “mood food”. Noting what, when, where and how you feel before, during and after eating will help you to identify your own personal triggers. Using a hunger scale before and after meals is another useful tool in identifying non-hungry eating behaviours.

For more information and a sample Food and Mood Diary please click here for the Disordered Eating Factsheet.

Me is all about what you need to do for yourself, managing your diabetes and doing what you can.

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