Mindless Munching: Why we eat when we aren't hungry

Overeating and unhealthy eating are phrases we have all become familiar with. Despite the unhealthy food environment we find ourselves within, it isn’t only food that’s to blame. Many of us, for one reason or another, overeat nearly every day. In fact, the number of people who exceed the recommended daily calorie intake is above 40 percent.

As it turns out, there may be a good reason why many of us overeat; we are stressed out, tired, dehydrated and distracted. So, while we can’t prevent these daily hardships, we can better prepare ourselves to cope with them in healthy ways, rather than turning to food. Learning more about the reasons behind overeating is the first step, let’s take a closer look.  

Emotions & Stress

Often times, when we experience intense emotions, like anger, sadness, fear or stress, we are eager to find an outlet to rid ourselves of the discomfort. We look for distractions or ways to cope and food seems like a great option. Many of the foods we reach for when we are distressed are processed foods containing high amounts of fat and sugar. These ingredients trigger a reward response in the brain which drives us to want to eat more.

Emotional eating is more common than you may think. Here are a few tips you can try when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed: exercising, reaching for healthier foods and introspective techniques (e.g., journaling, meditation…etc.).


Similar to stress, boredom can spur on eating as a form of distraction or stimulation. In fact, researchers have found that boredom doesn’t only cause us to eat, but it actually sparks a craving for unhealthy foods.

Eating out of boredom can seem like a difficult habit to recognize, let alone stop. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, if you notice yourself reaching for a snack out of boredom, try one of these options instead: get active, call or text a friend, do a house-hold chore or chew gum.

Cravings vs. Hunger

Many of us don’t have the ability to distinguish between cravings and hunger. The bodily cues for both are very similar. However, cravings can be more than just our minds playing tricks on us; they are our body’s way of indicating that something is missing. That missing thing could be essential nutrients, or it could be a sugar rush.

Keep this in mind the next time you are struggling to tell if you are genuinely hungry or just experiencing a craving. If you are longing for something specific (e.g., salty chips, cookies, candy…etc.), it is most likely a craving. If you are hungering after any type of food, you are hungry.


Dehydration can easily be mistaken for other conditions, like hunger, due to its common symptoms. Some signs you may be dehydrated include: feeling sluggish or tired, dry eyes and weakness.

So when the midafternoon lull hits and you reach for a snack to get a boost of energy, try drinking water first. Yes…only water, no sugary or caffeinated beverages.


Many of us rely on routines to provide some consistency and predictability to our lives. While some routines can be positive, like exercise routines, they can also be negative. When actions, like eating, become routine they become automatic and mindless. 

Some of us may have a mid-afternoon snack routine, or a routine to eat lunch at a certain time without even asking, are we actually hungry? In an effort to prevent mindless munching due to routines, try mixing up your routine and eating at a different time or ignore the clock all together, at least while you’re at home.

Start with eating a more balanced diet with nutrient rich foods. Focus on fiber and vitamins and avoid the sugars and fats. Also, remember to embrace variety, don’t skip meals, eat slower and ditch the distractions. The experts at Gwinnett Medical Center can help you better understand your personal nutrition needs and create a positive lifestyle change. If you are looking for a more comprehensive weight-loss option, the Center for Weight Management can help!


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