Weighty Matters

Making peace with your body and food.

What Are You Really Hungry For?

There are alternatives to empty snacks, if you know where to look.

If you’re like most people in our culture, you don’t just eat when you’re hungry and you don't stop when you’re full. We have the luxury of living in a land of food abundance, but it comes at a price.

Psychologist Kelly Brownell, dean of the school of public policy at Duke University and formerly the director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, refers to the United States as a “toxic food environment.” What he means is that everywhere we turn, low-cost, high-calorie foods tempt us. And there is a massive marketing machine behind these foods—powered in part by psychologists and other scientists who know exactly the most powerful way to display things, use the power of scent, and create the most attractive images.

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Combine this abundance with stress, loneliness, the need to unwind, and other modern concerns, and you may find yourself living in an unhealthy pattern. Typically, these feelings combine with an automatic negative way of thinking and result in overeating or unnecessary snacking.

3 Common Reasons We Eat When We’re Not Hungry

Stress.

Do you find yourself walking in after a hard day’s work and heading straight to the fridge or the snack cupboard? Are you actually hungry? Is food the solution to feeling stressed and needing to unwind? Consider a more targeted alternative solution, maybe involving a quick walk around the block before walking in the door. Or maybe changing into more comfortable clothes would feel good. Or listening to relaxing music instead of the news would help you make the transition from work to commute to home without it ending in overeating or snacking.

Loneliness.

Along with the end of your day, weekends, or any other times you find yourself alone, are other high-risk times for snacking or overeating. Are you actually hungry? Is food the solution to your feelings of isolation? Connecting with friends or joining clubs, classes, or other activities are probably a better fit for this need than filling the void with food. When you’re feeling lonely, consider all the things you could do to help you feel more connected to friends and family, in person or via phone, email, or social media. There are myriad ways to end that feeling of isolation. Food won't do it.

Boredom.

Do you find yourself rummaging around the kitchen and snacking when you have nothing else to do? Are you actually hungry? Is food the solution to the problem when you can’t find something that interests you? Consider hobbies that you used to find enjoyable. Consider things you’ve never tried but have sparked your imagination. When you’re bored, finding ways to engage your interest and imagination is the solution. This is what you are actually craving. If you take some time to consider other options, before you get bored, you'll have a ready set of potential solutions that won’t involve food.

The bottom line: Ask yourself, What am I really hungry for? If it’s not food, then it’s time to start finding some real and effective alternatives.

Ann Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

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