We don’t always eat because we’re hungry. We eat for a number of different reasons, including external cues such as the sight or smell of food. “It’s been suggested that we make somewhere close to 200 eating decisions a day,” says Edward Abramson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco and author of the new book, It’s NOT Just Baby Fat: 10 Steps to Help Your Child to a Healthy Weight, “and physical hunger is a minority of them.”
It’s no surprise: We’re bombarded by food commercials and ads on billboards and in newspapers and magazines. And because we have such easy access to food with grocery stores and restaurants open 24/7, we can think we’re hungry even though we’re not, hampering weight loss. “Images in commercials can sensitize the brain as effectively as having the food in front of you,” explains Stella Metsovas, CCN, a nutritionist in private practice in Laguna Beach, Calif.
We also eat in response to emotional turmoil. “We eat to make ourselves feel better when we’re anxious or depressed,” Abramson says. Emotional eating is more common among women than men, but men do it too, he adds.
How to Stop Eating When You’re Not Really Hungry
Studies have shown that if we listen to our body’s signals about hunger, fullness, and appetite, we will know better when to stop eating. And weight loss is easier when you listen to what your body is telling you.
Here’s how you can get back in touch with your body and know when you’re truly hungry, so you will eat at the right times and boost your efforts to lose weight:
- Keep a journal. Write down how you feel after consuming a large meal. “It will help you to correlate any food hangovers with overeating,” Metsovas says. It’s easy to keep a food log. “It doesn’t have to be too elaborate — maybe a 3” by 5” card that has the time of day and where and what you were eating and how you felt,” Abramson suggests. “After a week, look at it and see if there are any obvious patterns.” If you notice that you’re overeating or eating unhealthy foods when you sit down to watch TV at night, you may be able to switch to healthier fare, such as air-popped popcorn rather than a buttered version, or find something else to do with your hands, such as knitting or crocheting.
- Don’t sit down for a meal starving. You can help curb your appetite by drinking water or sipping herbal tea before a meal. If you’re truly hungry and dinner isn’t for another hour or so, have a small snack, such as a handful of almonds or pretzels or cut-up veggies with low-fat dressing.
- Eat frequent small meals. “It’s often helpful for anyone trying to lose weight to go on interval eating — have a mini-meal every 3 to 3½ hours throughout the day,” says Daniel C. Stettner, PhD, director of psychology at UnaSource Health Center in Troy, Mich., and an adjunct professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. The key is to keep meals mini if you’re going to eat more frequently. Otherwise, you’ll be overeating.
- Take 20. “A meal ideally needs to be 20 minutes or longer,” Stettner says. “Twenty minutes is the magic number because it takes 20 minutes for the stomach to send signals to the brain to let it know you are eating. If you scarf food down in five to 10 minutes, your brain hasn’t caught up yet with your stomach. If you stretch a meal to 20 minutes or longer, it makes it more satisfying and you feel fuller.”
- Play detective. Ask yourself these questions: “Why am I eating this? Am I truly hungry? Do I feel lightheaded because I haven’t eaten for a while? Or am I eating because the clock says it’s time? Am I craving something sweet because I’m upset about a problem?” Knowing why you’re eating gives you the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether you want to eat versus automatically eating something, Abramson says.
- Be discerning about dessert. Studies have shown that if you eat chocolate when you’re hungry, you have less control, so you’ll eat it faster and consume more. “If you really like chocolate chip cookies, save them for dessert,” Abramson says. “If you eat your treats at the end of a meal as dessert, it decreases the strength of future cravings for them. I can’t tell you the mechanism of why this is so, but studies show it’s a way of reducing cravings.”