Why You Eat When You’re Not Hungry

Do you eat when you’re not hungry? Why does this happen? In this article, we’ll explain the different possible reasons.
Why You Eat When You’re Not Hungry

Last update: 17 January, 2021

In this article, we’ll explain the factors that make you eat when you don’t have an appetite.

Have you ever eaten without having an appetite? Surely this has happened to you many times. But why do you eat when you’re not hungry?

There’s a fine line between people who eat when they’re not hungry and emotional eaters. Indulging in emotional eating can be dangerous, as it increases the risk of developing an eating disorder.

The sense of hunger

To begin with, it’s important to take a closer look at hunger itself. Here are some of the reasons why you feel hunger.

  • Hunger helps you meet your nutrient needs.
  • Eating helps you maintain cell structures and functions.
  • Hunger encourages you to eat, which gives your body energy.

However, nowadays, people are increasingly eating more out of pleasure than to nourish themselves. In the very stressful society in which we live, food marketing, and how easy it is to access different foods are factors that can influence this problem.

Below, discover why you eat when you’re not hungry.

What’s hunger and how does the body regulate it?

Hunger is the sensation that indicates your body’s natural need for food. Substances that operate in the brain, specifically in the hypothalamus, are behind it.

A  neuroendocrine system located in the hypothalamus regulates hunger, satiety, and energy balance. The system is a complex network of neurohormonal circuits. This network consists of long-term and short-term peripheral and central molecular signals, as well as other sensory, mechanical, and cognitive factors.

Short-term signals are regulated by ghrelin, which increases with fasting, and leptin, which inhibits food intake and boosts metabolism. In contrast, long-term signals reflect the size of fat reserves.

A woman in her fridge about to eat chocolate cake.

Why you eat when you’re not hungry

As we mentioned above, other external factors encourage you to eat when you’re not hungry. We’ll explain them below.

High palatability of foods

The food industry has created foods with very powerful flavors to whet your appetite so you want to keep eating more. For example, the mixture of sugar and fats in sweets or very salty foods with artificial flavors, such as French fries.

In fact, a fifth flavor, umami, was invented. Foods rich in monosodium glutamate have this flavor. In fact, it’s mainly found in ultra-processed foods.

It’s worth mentioning that, according to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, satiating foods are those rich in protein, fats, and fiber.

Food marketing

You probably see food advertising everywhere, and not exactly for healthy foods. Seeing a commercial for food that appeals to you while you’re watching TV can evoke certain emotions. This is something marketing takes advantage of to boost sales.

Commercials are catchy and fun. When you see or hear the advertisement for a food product, you could be tempted to consume it, no matter what time it is.

Social and cultural factors

Another reason why you eat when you’re not hungry is that society encourages people to celebrate everything with food and drinks. Celebrating a party, Christmas, or a wedding, among other moments, can lead you to eat excessively without even realizing it.


“I had a bad day at work and feel stressed out. When I get home, I’m going to feel overwhelmed. I need to find a way to relax and feel better.”

This has probably happened to you before and has led to food binges. Many times, people eat when they’re bored, stressed, happy, sad, etc. This is known as emotional eating or binge eating.

Normally, when you engage in emotional eating, you can lose control to a different extent. Most people unconsciously choose unhealthy foods that are rich in fats, sugar, or salt. It’s been shown that, in some people, stress is capable of modifying the regulation between appetite and satiety.

A woman choosing an apple over donuts.

Variety in foods

Today, you can find countless foods: local, imported from other countries, those adapted to different lifestyles, and many unhealthy foods. Humans are tempted to try new things, which makes it harder for us to control ourselves.

Not getting enough sleep

Lack of sleep produces alterations in the hormones that are responsible for regulating appetite, which makes us more hungry. Also, as this Scientific Reports study shows, it makes people opt for high-calorie foods rich in fat.

How can you stop eating when you’re not hungry?

The first thing you need to do is avoid buying unhealthy foods, such as sweets, salty snacks, pizza, sugary drinks, etc. Instead, buy healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, natural dairy products, and dark chocolate.

This way, when you have food cravings, you’ll only have access to these foods in your fridge or pantry.

Secondly, you need to listen to your body and ask yourself if you’re really hungry. If you ate not too long ago, you’re probably not hungry. If you prefer to eat a chocolate cookie instead of a fruit, it may be out of anxiety or boredom.

Another good idea is to start doing another activity so you can forget about eating. For example, you could go for a walk, call a friend, or read a book.

Also, don’t forget to get enough sleep and exercise. It really helps!

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Hyperphagia, or Excessive Appetite
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Hyperphagia, or Excessive Appetite

Hyperphagia, or excessive appetite, is associated with problems like excess weight and obesity, which can lead to further complications.

  • Warrilow A., Mellor D., McKune A., Pumpa K., Dietary fat, fibre, satiation, and satiety – a systematic review of acute studies. Eur J Clin Nutr, 2019. 73 (3): 333-344.
  • Ans AH., Anjum I., Satija V., Inayat A., et al., Neurohormonal regulation of appetite and its relationship with stress: a mini literature review. Cureus, 2018.
  • Fang, Z., Spaeth, A. M., Ma, N., Zhu, S., Hu, S., Goel, N., … & Rao, H. (2015). Altered salience network connectivity predicts macronutrient intake after sleep deprivation. Scientific reports5, 8215.