Why You Eat When You’re Not Hungry (and How to Stop Doing It)

girl eating in bed

Woman eating dessert in bed | iStock.com

Nighttime equals snack time for a big chunk of people, which also happens to coincide with the hour many of them peruse the internet. This means there’s a very good chance a large chunk of folks reading this right now are simultaneously chowing down on a favorite snack. For most of these snackers, the behavior is more about routine than it is actual hunger. It’s habitual eating.

Different health publications will offer a laundry list of reasons why people eat when they aren’t hungry: boredom, food is just there, the clock says it’s time to eat, and being surrounded by others who are chowing down. But these are all just variations on the habitual-eating trend. No matter the specific trigger prompting someone to eat, it all stems from what’s going on inside his or her brain.

Time for a little science. A group of researchers set out to see how developing habits affects the way people eat. The study, published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, recruited 32 participants who were instructed to push a button in response to a visual cue, which was sometimes rewarded with an M&M candy or a Frito corn chip. Subjects were split into two groups: one that performed the session twice, the non-habit group, and another that did the process 12 times, the habit group. Researchers also measured brain activity during the test, which indicated the food was desirable for both groups. After completing the testing, both groups were directed to eat until full. What happened next was pretty interesting.

freshly popped popcorn

Bowl of popcorn on a checkered table | iStock.com

After the meal, both groups were asked to complete a similar testing session. When the non-habit group performed the button test after eating, their brain signals indicated much less desire for the candy and chips. On the flip side, the habit group’s brain activity was nearly identical to the initial testing, even though they weren’t hungry anymore.

The setting for this example is a bit unusual, but another group of researchers from the University of Southern California took a more real-world approach. In this 2011 study, movie goers were given either freshly popped popcorn or stale, seven-day-old kernels. Participants who indicated they regularly ate popcorn at the movies chowed down regardless of whether or not they received fresh kernels while those who indicated they didn’t usually eat the movie snack showed a clear dislike for stale popcorn.

As a control, the team also undertook a similar procedure in an office setting. This time, even regular popcorn eaters left the stale kernels untouched. Why the difference? Eating popcorn at the movies is habit, something many people don’t really think about. Chowing down on a bowl of kernels while in a meeting room, on the other hand, doesn’t carry the same association.

Even emotional eating is, at its core, a byproduct of habit. If you typically end a bad day by eating a pint of ice cream, your brain is going to keep telling you to dig into the frozen treat on future crummy days. Keep in mind, not everyone eats as a way to cope. Some go the opposite direction, slashing their intake when dealing with extreme stress or sorrow.

overhead image of a woman's hands holding a cup of tea in bed

Woman having tea in bed | iStock.com

This sounds like a lot of bad news, particularly when you consider how hard it is to break bad habits. It’ll take time and a lot of patience, but it is possible to form healthier eating habits. An article published in the British Journal of General Practice outlined a simplified procedure to build healthy habits. First, determine your goal. Now you need to find a simple way to implement the goal every day, and make sure you keep the time and place as consistent as possible. From there, it’s just a matter of sticking with the change until it eventually becomes habit.

If we think about this in the context of eating cookies while you read before bed, you can disrupt this habit by brushing your teeth before you sit down to read. If you must have some sort of oral fixation, try swapping your cookies for a cup of herbal tea. In a month, you might look forward to this nightly ritual just as much as your previous one.

Maybe an even better idea is to actually get in touch with your sense of hunger. Some people like to call this mindful eating. Whatever term you use, the idea is to really pay attention to your hunger and satiety signals as well as how much pleasure you actually get from the foods you eat. It takes a certain amount of concentration, but it can really help restore a more balanced relationship with food. Maybe you’ll find one perfect square of dark chocolate provides way more satisfaction than an entire package of cookies.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec