I have… (OK — maybe I didn’t have to be rolled out, but I do this great trick where I go for dinner and come home a full shirt-size larger.)
The fact is, we’re all susceptible to cues in ourselves and our environment that cause us to eat when we’re not necessarily hungry. It’s a huge problem, and one of the main reasons for my own lifelong chunkiness.
So what do you do when your urge to eat has no basis in physical hunger, and you want to avoid taking in surplus calories? Simple: you identify the trigger that’s giving you a false appetite, and do something else that delivers the same reward as eating.
It’s an elegant solution, but challenging to execute. So I’m going to help you with it — here are 27 triggers that cause you to eat when you don’t really need to, and what to do instead:
Food becomes linked to positive and negative emotions by association. Instead of eating to recapture or avoid certain feelings, think about what you really need:
1. Stress and Anxiety
This is one of the most common causes of overeating, thanks to the tranquilizing effects of food. Stress can’t always be eliminated completely, so it’s important to learn how to manage it without eating.
Sharing your problems with others, exercising and engaging in fun activities are healthy and constructive ways to relieve stress, as are meditation and relaxation techniques. Ask yourself “is this issue really the catastrophe I’m making it out to be?” and see if there’s something you can do to resolve it.
Chronic, severe or disproportionate anxiety is to be taken seriously though; consult a medical professional if you suspect this is the case for you.
We all get down from time to time and reach for our favourite comfort foods. The feel-good reactions in the brain offer temporary relief, but this soon gives way to guilt and discomfort.
A better approach is to acknowledge your feelings and allow them to pass. Talking to someone or keeping a diary may help you pinpoint the issue that’s causing your sadness. You can emulate the effects of comfort food with exercise, taking a relaxing bath or engaging in sports and other fun hobbies.
Persistent or severe depression may indicate an underlying disorder and should be brought to the attention of a medical professional.
3. Love and Loneliness
Gestures of affection such as cooking for your family or buying your partner chocolates become inextricably linked to feeling loved. In the absence of close relationships and social interaction, food can fill the gap and will always be there when you need it.
However, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Reach out to existing friends and family and make a concerted effort to hang out with them more. Get involved with local clubs, societies and volunteer groups to make new connections.
We’re social creatures, so go socialise!
You may find yourself eating as a way to relax if you’re irritated, frustrated or resentful towards someone. It’s both natural and inevitable that you’ll get hot under the collar occasionally, but anger should never be buried no matter how you do it.
Instead, try being assertive and tell the other party how you feel while keeping your emotions in check. Alternatively, look for another outlet such as talking to a friend, exercising or keeping a journal. Finally, turn that frown upside down by playing with your children and pets or watching a comedy.
Food becomes a welcome distraction when you feel overwhelmed by your obligations, or when you’re trying to avoid conflict and other tricky situations. First of all, prioritise. Figure out what’s most important to you, and tackle one thing at a time.
The enormity of a task or situation can be paralysing, so forget the big picture. Just focus on the first step you need to take and get started.
Be honest: how often have you reached for a bag of crisps just because it gave you something to do? Boredom is often a product of procrastination, so make sure you’re not putting something off.
If your schedule is clear and you’re still looking for ways to pass the time, there are plenty of healthier alternatives to eating. Read a book, go for a walk, play video games, learn a musical instrument — the list is endless.
Food is often used to mark achievements, momentous occasions, or the end of a challenging day, but there are healthier ways to celebrate. Acknowledge the effort and give yourself a pat on the back, then go see a movie, buy some new clothes, treat yourself to a massage or hit the town with some friends.
Some biological signals are regularly misinterpreted as hunger, while certain physical conditions can cue us to eat or contribute to weight gain:
We often confuse hunger and thirst, as they are such close bedfellows. If in doubt, try drinking a glass of water and waiting a few minutes to see if the urge to eat has passed.
9. Pain and Discomfort
Certain pleasurable foods may provide momentary relief from physical pain, but you’re just adding to your problems. Bring the issue to the attention of your physician, so it can be properly addressed through medication, physical therapy, massage or gentle exercise.
Food is often used as a “pick-me-up” when we get tired, drowsy or groggy. Try taking a break or power nap instead, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep every night.
11. Hormonal Cycles
It’s natural to treat cravings and mood swings with your favourite foods, just get straight back on the wagon if you overdo it. Don’t use PMS as an excuse to binge. Remind yourself that you’ll feel a lot better if you maintain your healthy diet.
You may find yourself eating to satisfy an urge to chew or suck. Try chewing sugar-free gum or a toothpick instead (cigarettes and nail-biting are not recommended).
13. Medical Conditions and Medication
Certain conditions like low thyroid and menopause can contribute to weight gain, as can the side effects of some medicines. Ask your doctor about treatments and alternative drugs that mitigate the increases in weight and appetite, and don’t compound the problem by eating poorly. Whatever hand you’re dealt, resolve to make the healthiest lifestyle choices you can.
External cues to eat are all around us, all the time, and we often respond without realising. Recognise the circumstances and be prepared with a strategy:
14. Exposure to “Bad” Foods
The sight and smell of your favourite goodies is often too tempting to pass up. You have two options here: eliminate them from your kitchen and ignore them when shopping or eating out, or exercise moderation and indulge, then move on and get back to being healthy. I know which one I prefer.
15. Happy Hour
Most people have a very specific time of day when they tend to overeat, like straight after work or late at night. Figure out when your Happy Hour is, and arrange to do something that doesn’t involve eating instead. Go for a walk, hit the gym, meditate — you get the idea. Make sure the preceding meal is nutritious and filling so there’s no chance of you getting hungry.
16. Food Associations
Any activity you consistently pair with eating will automatically trigger an urge to eat. A good example of this is eating while watching TV. If you do this often enough, just sitting down to watch the goggle box will become a cue to have a snack in hand. Limit meal time to the dining table, eliminate distractions, and focus on your food.
17. Meal Times
These are often dictated by habit, tradition or ritual, rather than physical hunger. You can train yourself to become hungry as meal time approaches by eating at consistent times every day (read this to learn more about the hormones that regulate this). Whatever time you end up eating, assess your hunger levels and stop when you’re satisfied.
18. Portion Sizes
Large servings and dishes trigger you to eat more, plain and simple. At home, use smaller plates and prepare only as much food as you think you’ll need. At restaurants, skip the starters and ask for a half portion if you suspect their serving sizes will be too much for you. You can always ask for a doggy bag and enjoy the leftovers the next time you’re hungry.
19. Food as a Gift
One never wishes to cause offence, so it’s difficult to turn down the offer of food, especially if it’s been made just for you. Thank the person offering, politely explain that you’re not hungry or that you’ve just eaten, and ask to take some home for later if you wish.
20. Social Occasions
We often tend to eat mindlessly in social settings like sporting events, parties or at the movies. Focus on enjoying the occasion rather than the food. If possible, time the event so it replaces a regular meal or adjust your eating beforehand so your hunger peaks at the right time. Make healthy choices in terms of the quantity and quality of the food you eat, and savour every bite.
If you don’t eat out frequently, there’s a tendency to treat it as a special occasion and resolve to get your money’s worth. This can lead to overeating and poor food choices. Decide what you’re hungry for beforehand; if it’s dessert you really want, then skip the starters and get a small main course. Remember, you can return anytime to try the other tasty-looking dishes you skipped.
22. In the Car
I don’t need to explain to you how dangerous and distracting it is to eat while you’re driving, do I? In any case, you’ll be unable to focus on your meal or enjoy it properly, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be eating McDonald’s or some other type of nutritionally-barren convenience food.
Eat before or after your journey, and if you know you’ll be on the road for a while bring a healthy packed meal and park up to eat it.
23. At Work
Eating lunch at the desk is commonplace. As is snacking to relieve stress or break up monotony. Never eat while you are engaged in work; get away from your desk and go to the canteen, or somewhere you won’t be distracted. Resolve to eat only what you bring in with you and when a break is required, get out into the fresh air if possible.
24. Business Events
Networking and client entertainment often involves meeting over lunch and/or drinks. If possible, try to arrange these meetings at times when you’ll be hungry and where healthy choices will be available. Better still, go for non-food-related activities such as golf, tennis, spa days and so on.
25. Cultural Holidays
Christmas and Easter are synonymous with rich food, to the point where bingeing has almost become part of the tradition. Whichever holidays you celebrate in your culture, don’t use them as an excuse to abandon common sense. Resolve to be extra vigilant about listening to your body, while allowing yourself to enjoy the small indulgences.
26. Food Marketing
Advertisers know exactly how suggestible we are, so we’re hit with delectable and tempting food messages at every turn. Ignore the ads or see them for what they are: an attempt to elicit a response that favours the manufacturer, not you. Remember, you decide when and what you eat.
27. At the Supermarket
Slow music, in-store displays and impulse buys at the register are all extensions of food marketing. Always shop from a list, and never go to the supermarket hungry. Stay around the periphery of the store where the fresh, healthy food is kept, and shop briskly. The longer you stay in there, the more you’re likely to buy.
Your triggers will be specific to you. Consider the list of suggestions above as a jumping-off point to help you investigate your own unwanted eating behaviours, and come up with new, healthy alternatives.
Will it take time? Probably. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely.