Why Eating When You're NOT Hungry Is Bad for You

Health Writer

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.

We are all probably guilty of seeing a treat and pushing past fullness, or eating when we aren’t really hungry. Many of us also struggle with emotional feeding, eating to assuage stress and feelings of sadness.

These eating patterns can cause weight gain, but a study from January, 2016 suggests that eating when you’re not hungry does even more harm by driving up blood sugar levels.

Many factors can stimulate a desire to eat, even when we’re not hungry. Constant availability of tasty, cheap food, the non-stop television and internet food advertisements that bombard us constantly, and large food signs that pepper the landscape we navigate daily, can nudge us to eat when we really aren’t hungry. We also marry all celebrations with a food experience. After someone passes, we bring large amounts of food to the family, partially to allow them to grieve without the responsibility of dealing with food preparation, and also because deep down we believe the food will soothe their sadness. We are a food nation, and many of us have lost the ability or the value of eating only when hungry.

Certainly those food behaviors are likely fueling weight gain and rates of obesity. But research suggests that if you eat when you are not hungry, you are likely causing a higher blood sugar spike, than if you eat when you are moderately hungry. These chronic sugar spikes are dangerous to our health.

In the study, 45 student subjects were asked to rank their hunger and were then given a carbohydrate-rich meal. Carbohydrates break down into simple sugars, which is why a carbohydrate-based meal was served. Blood glucose levels were measured at precise intervals in the hours following the meal.

Results of the study showed that those individuals who were moderately hungry before the meal tended to have lower blood sugar levels in the hours after consuming the meal, compared to individuals who said they** were not hungry**. It’s important to note that this study is an “associational study” meaning that the findings suggest an association between being hungry and having healthier post-meal glucose levels.

David Gal, the lead researcher and an associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois, suggests that the reason for the higher blood sugar spike when we aren’t hungry appears to be linked to the fact that our body did not have time to prepare physiologically for proper absorption of the nutrients coming into our body, including glucose. This isn’t a big deal if it happens occasionally, but if it happens on a regular basis, over a long period of time, it means your body has repetitive high blood sugar levels circulating. It means that your body is experiencing “diabetes moments.”

The hemoglobin A1C test is a three-month average of blood sugar levels. It’s used to screen for prediabetes and diabetes, and it is also used to monitor blood sugar averages once you are being treated for either of those conditions. Individuals who run elevated A1C levels also have a greater risk of other health complications like heart disease.

In addition to the reasons just mentioned that nudge feedings when we’re not hungry, healthy individuals also tend to eat more when they exercise (even when they’re not hungry) “to refuel,” and individuals who eat lots of so-called healthy foods, may feel they are “less full” (psychologically) and therefore grab snacks when they aren’t really hungry.

So how do you curb or limit eating when you’re not hungry?

  • Learn about the hunger scale and see if you can begin to use it to assess levels of hunger. You should eat when you are between a seven and nine on the scale.

  • Be aware of external stimuli like those checkout counters filled with quick grab snacks and foods and tune into whether you are truly hungry or not before you grab food.

  • Start learning to “feel your hunger” by timing a meal and then noticing how you feel at hourly intervals after the meal. If it was well-balanced with healthy fat, protein, and high fiber carbohydrate components, you shouldn’t feel hungry for at least three to four hours.

  • Don’t automatically eat if you see food. Assess your level of hunger.

  • Don’t automatically eat after an exercise session. Assess your hunger and then time your refueling to coincide with moderate hunger.

  • Talk to your doctor about getting an A1C test if you feel that you have this pattern of eating. A higher than normal A1C may require further evaluation for prediabetes or diabetes, but it can also help to empower you to change your eating habits.

  • Begin to learn to substitute other behaviors instead of eating when you are stressed or feeling other negative emotions.

  • Don’t keep tempting food around. Willpower loses most of the time.

  • An old Oprah trick is to brush your teeth after dinner to signal that you’re finished eating until the next morning.

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