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Reasons to Eat Besides Hunger

Bubbles under water
Photo credit: Siegfried Poepperl

Hunger is not the only reason to eat.

On popular media today, eating because of hunger is a popular trend. Social media, from what  clients tell me is ripe with influencers (and even, dietitians) posting what they eat in a day in response to hunger or how to clue into hunger or how to only eat when you’re hungry.

This seems to come from Intuitive Eating. While IE has done a lot of good for people, it also has its flaws as I’ve written before in a past newsletter. One more to add to the list is this focus on eating for physical (i.e. hunger) rather than emotional reasons. While this is true- eating for emotional reasons only is problematic- it is not the entire picture.

Today, I hope to shed some light on this.


What is hunger?

Our appetites are controlled by a very complex neurophysiological process that is influenced by many factors- genetic, hormonal, and environmental. There are many hormones and pathways that intersect to give us signals for eating - it is a delicate, biological and neurological system.

Hunger is influenced by a homeostatic system, in which our bodies work to get us to consume enough energy to survive during energy deficit, and a hedonic system, in which pleasure and reward affect eating. Essentially, seeking out food is often driven by a reaction to the complex system of hunger or a reaction to cues associated with food reward.

Some people feel hunger, physically, in their stomach as a gnawing or a grumbling. Others feel it as an emptiness in their throat or esophagus. Hunger can also be sensed as an inability to concentrate, a headache or a tiredness. It can even be a shakiness or weakness.

Hunger can also be felt emotionally. As moodiness or irritability. We may notice we lack motivation to do our work or feel like we’re being short with other people.

When we do not listen to our hunger, it ends up dissipating. If we stayed hungry forever, we’d all be miserable. Our bodies survive by working through the hunger, learning to conserve and shutting appetite down.

That is why, when people come see me who are not eating enough, it is not uncommon for them to tell me they feel no hunger at all. ‘So, why eat?’ they ask!

What influences hunger?

Hunger depends on many factors. These include factors related to genetics, upbringing around food, environment, brain chemistry, behaviors around food and exercise, and more.

Some things that influence hunger include:

  • When you last ate

  • The components of what you last ate

  • Your overall dietary pattern

  • Your past and present food environment

  • Activity levels

  • Medications that reduce appetite like wellbutrin or Wegovy

  • Ingestion of caffeine, alcohol, marijuana or other drugs

  • Hydration status

  • Hormonal function

  • Surgical history

  • You microbiome and gut-brain connection

  • Perception of taste

  • Food history, including if you got autonomy with food as a child

And, more…

Hunger is complicated.

Because it is so complicated, it can be hard to understand when and if you’re hungry. While it can sometimes be obvious- ‘ahh…if I do not eat now I am going to just fall over!’ - it can also be confusing. ‘I ate 4 hours ago, but I’m just not hungry at all yet….’

What makes it hard to feel or understand when you’re hungry?

There are several factors that can get in the way of being able to clue into hunger. Some of these are controllable, and some are not.

These include:

  • A trauma history

  • Being full of stool, bloated, constipated, having diarrhea, or other GI concerns

  • Not eating enough during the day

  • Eating enough, but in an erratic and non-structured way

  • Being on a medicine like wellbutrin, that affect appetite

  • Ingesting caffeine or marijuana

  • Being distracted regularly whether by work, school, the phone, etc

  • Travel

  • Not getting enough sleep

  • Working the night shift

  • Eating while driving, walking or on-the-go

  • Overexercise

  • Inadequate hydration or drinking too much liquid

What are other reasons to eat besides hunger?

Hunger is a main motivator to eat. This is true. And, yet, because so many factors can distract us from our hunger cues or make it impossible to feel them, it is important to realize that eating despite not being hungry or knowing you are hungry is still necessary.

As I always say- if you feel hungry, EAT!

If you don’t feel hungry, you may also need to eat!

Not feeling hungry is not always a sign you’re getting enough nutrition.

Other reasons to eat beside hunger include:

  • Illness: Being sick with a cold and needing to nourish yourself so you can get better.

  • Practicality: Eating for practical reasons. I.e. eating 4 hours after your last meal because you have a work meeting that is about to start. Or, eating dinner on a red-eye flight because you want to get on the destination’s time zone when you arrive.

  • Athletics: Eating pre-, during- or post-workout because you need the energy for your goals.

  • Social: Engaging with others in a social situation, and eating is fun.

  • Emotional: Yes, it is ok to have a tub of ice cream when you break up with your partner, for instance! This is normal. Eating can be a coping mechanism once in a while. When it becomes the predominant one, or gets in the way of your quality of life, this becomes problematic.

  • Medication: You’re on a medication that suppresses appetite and you still need to eat because your body needs nourishment.

  • ED Recovery: You’re recovering from a restrictive eating disorder and your body is not giving you hunger signals. Yet to recover and get hunger signals back, you need to eat.

  • Or, you’re recovering from binge eating and eating in the morning after a binge is the last think you want to do, but you need to do it to not be starving at night and reduce the risk for more binge eating.

  • Sleep: You slept poorly and even though you woke up late and aren’t hungry, you still need to eat breakfast.

  • Injury: Recovering from injury or surgery and need protein and zinc to heal, among other nutrients.

  • Pregnancy/Breastfeeding: Eating because you’re pregnant or breastfeeding a baby, even though you're tired, have heartburn, are constipated, and are burnt out 🙂

And, eat because you want to. Do you always need a reason to eat? No!

Closing Thoughts

Hunger is not the only reason to eat.

During the Holidays, there may be many reasons to eat besides hunger - the taste of your favorite holiday meal, hanging out with friends, refeeding from a restrictive eating disorder, nourishing your body after a fun ski session, providing nutrients when you’re struggling with a cold and more.

Normalizing that eating can happen for reasons beyond hunger can help you be more flexible with food, and more forgiving with yourself. If you eat and discover it isn’t what you needed, that is information - not a reason to feel guilty.

The important thing is that you’re aware of you’re eating, and that you practice curious, non-judgement if it feels complicated. That you realize you will not always know when to eat and what, or how much. Or, even why. And, that is OK.


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