Why eating when you aren’t hungry is normal AND important

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If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that I’m a non-diet Dietitian who practices an intuitive eating approach. If you are new to the blog and new to intuitive eating or need a refresher, here are some blog posts that will give you an idea of what this means here and here

When someone first discovers intuitive eating and they don’t quite understand the nuances of it, it can be turned into the hunger/fullness diet really fast. This means simplifying the concept of intuitive eating to a black and white place where you should *only* eat when hungry and must *stop* when you're full. As humans we eat for a multitude of reasons, not just hunger. A big part of intuitive eating is giving yourself unconditional permission to have all foods at any time, and sometimes this means when we aren’t actually hungry. Let's discuss why we eat when we aren’t actually feeling hunger, and how these are helpful for self care.
 

Eating proactively.

Do you ever wake up in the morning without feeling hungry? You grab a cup of coffee instead of breakfast and get ready for the day because you aren’t having hunger pangs and your coffee gives you a false sense of fullness. Mid morning rolls around and suddenly you feel dizzy, shaky and sweaty which is likely a low blood sugar. This situation is an example for the need to eat proactively. Even if you aren’t feeling full-on hunger, having a small balanced snack aka a combination of protein fats and carbs can help prevent a low blood sugar and break the fast we experience while resting. When we go to sleep, that's 6-9 hours (give or take) of time spent “fasting”, plus 2-4 more hours after you wake up in the morning without eating if you were to skip breakfast.

Another example of proactive eating is having an afternoon snack between lunch and dinner even if you aren’t hungry but know there will be a long time period between the two meals. This can prevent hanger, also known as being overly hungry. Hanger removes our ability to enjoy our meal because primal instincts are in gear and only focused on getting our bodies energy quickly. Our bodies prefer being fed every 3-5 hours when awake for blood sugar stabilization, hunger cues in check, gut health, and is especially important if you are recovering from disordered eating. With chronic dieting/disordered eating, hunger cues are often out of sync and need to be relearned with consistent eating.

Activity is another reason to proactively eat. Having a snack before exercise and movement gives you the energy needed for the activity. If not properly fueled you can end up “hitting a wall” aka running out of energy from all forms of storage in the body, which does not feel good.
 

Eating for pleasure.

You don’t have to have a reason to eat. You simply are allowed to eat because you want to or because it sounds good. You have permission to eat a brownie a coworker brings to work just because you like brownies. I don’t know about you, but I never really eat ice cream when i’m hungry. It’s more like after dinner when I want something sweet, or when I want to go check out a cool ice cream spot in a new city as something to do. But if you do eat icecream when you are actually hungry, its all good :) No food rules here! Eating for pleasure is part of the human experience: think birthday parties, celebrations, vacations, etc.
 

Emotional eating.

Shout out to emotional eating for being a healthy coping skill. Emotional eating deserves an entire website, not just a mention in a blog post. More blog posts about emotional eating in the future. Emotional eating serves a purpose, whether it's to soothe you in the moment or to keep you alive- there are far more harmful coping skills that humans engage in. We often hear negative connotations with emotional eating, but the truth is it's completely normal. It only becomes harmful is when it's your only coping skill for feeling emotions.

It's completely normal to eat outside of being hungry, and actually helpful. When we don’t allow ourselves to have foods when we want unconditionally, this creates strain on our relationship with food. Deprivation leads to obsessive thoughts about food, negative relationships with food and body, and eating disorders. Do you have a hard time allowing yourself to enjoy food without being hungry? Lets talk about it!


Hannah Turnbull is a registered dietitian and certified group fitness instructor. Her work empowers people to nourish and accept their bodies with intuitive eating and health at every size. Her philosophy is all foods fit, all bodies are good bodies, and people deserve to live their most fulfilling lives without the noise of diet culture and body hatred bringing them down.

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