Learn the signs of real hunger to control your appetite in any situation.
Have you caught yourself opening and closing the refrigerator door or looking though kitchen cupboard but not really feeling like eating anything in front of you? How about eating “just because” and when you aren’t necessarily hungry? Have you ever wondered if it’s hunger or something else? If so, read on to learn more about how to tell if you are really hungry or just bored.
Managing your weight is a key to good health overall, but maintaining a healthy weight can be easier said than done. The key is focusing on the delicate balance between the food you eat and how your body uses that energy as fuel . We eat for many reasons—not only when we are hungry . Overeating is one reason people gain weight or struggle to maintain their weight . For some, eating is not really about eating. Sometimes, it’s related to our emotions .
Hunger, boredom, or appetite?
Understanding the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger can take time and practice . One way to start looking at why you are eating is to understand the difference between hunger and appetite.
- Hunger is indicated by a physiological sign such as a growling of the stomach . This sign tells us that the body needs food. Rather than coming on quickly, it usually has a gradual build. When you’re hungry, you are likely to be able to stop eating when you are full.
- Appetite, on the other hand, is considered to be psychological. It’s more of a craving, absent any signs or feelings of hunger . Psychological or emotional eating is more likely to accompany craving specific foods and can come on quickly in moments of happiness, sadness, stress, and other emotions.
Take, for example, boredom. Boredom “is a discrete emotion that associates with feeling dissatisfied, restless, and unchallenged when one interprets actions and situations at the present time as purposeless ,” It can serve as a way of redirecting one’s behavior away from the lack of meaning in the present moment .
It’s no secret that a lot of people eat when they are bored . According to some researchers, the excitement or stimulation of food can be used to create a sense of escape and cope with boredom .
How to understand if you’re really hungry.
- Check in: Ask yourself if you are truly hungry or if you are craving food for another reason. One helpful tool for this is a hunger scale which lets you put your hunger on a scale from 1-10 . Using the scale, 1 would be signs of uncomfortable hunger (after skipping a meal) and 10 would be feeling absolutely as full as possible (after a big dinner).
- Understand: Understand what’s happening in the moment that may be leading to the desire to eat. For many, this comes down to understanding our cues, which are events that precede behaviors.
- Respond: If you are tempted to eat out of boredom or other emotions, use your “skill power” rather than relying on “willpower” to set yourself up for success.
- Monitor and adjust over time: Understanding your progress over time may help you track how often you’re emotional eating. This can help you understand if your strategies are working.
How to stop boredom eating.
- Distract yourself: If you do identify as an emotional eater, having “go-to” strategies for distracting yourself until the emotion passes can be helpful. Make a list of a few activities you could do to occupy your mind until the feeling passes. Take a walk, read a book, play with your dog—whatever helps you focus on something else!
- Maintain healthy eating habits: Eating at regular times throughout the day can help provide structure in your eating patterns and support avoiding mindless eating. Whether your eating pattern includes three meals a day or six small meals and snacks, you can avoid mindless eating by having structure .
- Set your environment up for success: There are easy things you can do to avoid cues to eat when you aren’t hungry. Keep sweets and snacks out of sight or avoid bringing them into the house at all. Eat meals in designated areas of the house. Changes like these can help change your triggers so you’re only eating when you’re hungry.
- Log your snacks and meals: Tracking your meals and snacks can help you stay aware of what you are eating and the patterns you may have around certain foods. If you are trying to lose or maintain your weight, this can also help you stay within your daily calorie budget.
The first step to getting your eating pattern under control is understanding it. If you find yourself eating when you’re bored, try some of these tips. If you or someone you love has an eating disorder, UPMC and UPMC Health Plan can help. For referrals and more information, call the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders at 412-647-9329 or visit the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders online.
1Healthy weight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated January 28, 2020. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/index.html
2Emotional eating: Exploring the hunger inside. National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability. No date. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://www.nchpad.org/787/4169/Emotional~Eating~~Exploring~the~Hunger~Inside
3What is overeating? How to control your portions. UPMC Health Beat. November 21, 2018. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://share.upmc.com/2018/11/portion-control-overeating
4Moynihan AB, van Tilburg WA, Igou ER, Wisman A, Donnelly AE, Mulcaire JB. Eaten up by boredom: Consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self. Front Psychol. 2015;6:369. Published 2015 Apr 1. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.003695MOVE! Weight management program hunger and fullness. U.S .Department of Veteran Affairs. No date. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://www.move.va.gov/docs/NewHandouts/Nutrition/N04_HungerAndFullness.pdf