Should you eat when you’re not hungry?

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff suggests that you should in his article, Worst Diet Advice: ‘Only Eat When Hungry’. His advice is to eat at regular intervals throughout the day so that you can avoid situations where you are truly hungry which can lead to poor eating decisions, like unhealthy afternoon snacks.

Contrary to this, I believe that some people miss their weight loss or maintenance goals because they eat when they not hungry. For some people, the afternoon or late night indulgence is not the result of residual hunger, it’s just something they do. It is a habit that will occur regardless of hunger levels.

Am I contradicting Dr. Freedhoff?

Yes and no. Really what I am suggesting is that we need to ask the question: Are you having that afternoon chocolate because you’re hungry? Or are you having it because it’s 3pm and that’s what you do at 3pm?

If the answer really is that you are hungry, then it is a hunger induced poor decision, and I completely agree with Dr. Freedhoff that eating more earlier in the day is a great solution. But if the answer is that it is not hunger, but habit that spawns the snack, then eating more earlier in the day is just going to mean that person will eat even more.

What should you do? There are lots of options. Since reading the fascinating book, The Power of Habit (Big thanks to www.phdinpatenting.com for sharing it with me), I have been looking at habits as a cycle of a cue, an action, and a reward. To change a habit, you have to change one of those three parts of the habit cycle.

Dr. Freedhoff’s suggested approach also fits into this concept. If hunger is the reason someone is snacking, then eating more earlier will remove the hunger cue, thus averting the action (eating the snack).

If the cue is “it’s 3pm” instead of “I’m hungry“, then changing the cue isn’t a viable option. At least not for us mortals who have yet to discover time travel. Until then, we need to look at changing the action or the reward. An example of changing the action would be to have healthy snacks available and not keeping money handy so that you reach for veggies and hummus instead of going to buy chocolate.

Personally I have been experimenting with changing the reward: I am replacing the delicious food reward signal with a smiley face reward. No, really. For the past week, every time I have had an urge to snack when I’m not hungry, I have thought about adding a smiley face to the note app on my phone. It turns out I like pats on the back, even when they come from me. Amazingly I like them more than I like the post-meal (minutes after the meal) and late night snacks that I have enjoyed almost daily for years.

These are only a couple of examples, but they illustrate a point, that sometimes addressing food challenges is not really about the food. How can you tell? When you catch yourself eating something you know you’ll later wish you hadn’t, ask yourself the question: “Am I eating this because I’m hungry?

Anyone else have examples of changing either cue, action, or reward to help overcome a challenging eating habit?

Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is an Ottawa-based personal trainer who is fascinated by the challenge that weight loss provides and the many “one true diets” available.

Interested in the concept of a weight loss program that combines customized nutritional guidance and exercise, then check out our Get Lean 2013 program. Currently only available in Ottawa, but sign up here to get notified when we launch our online nutrition program toward the end of 2013.

4 thoughts on “Should you eat when you’re not hungry?”

  1. Thanks for posting that great article, Erica! I find the reward response around food to be fascinating.

  2. You reminded me of this article (and particularly the example in it about the 3:30 cookie break): http://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-habit/

    There are so many rewards surrounding food that aren’t really about the food at all – social time, a mental break from work, comfort, congratulations – that it’s definitely worth examining those cues.

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