While it’s totally cool to eat solely for pleasure sometimes, it’s important to know the difference between your body’s desire for deliciousness and real hunger, TFW your blood sugar has dropped, your hunger hormones flow, your satiety hormones go MIA, and your stomach physically churns because it’s been so long since you ate lunch.
That's because regularly eating for a reason besides hunger can cause you to dissociate eating and hunger, so you end up overeating and ultimately gaining weight, warns Amit Sood, MD, professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and author of Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living. It's why you should think twice about the urge to eat when you crave food in any of the following situations:
1. You've been thinking really, really hard.
The brain isn’t great at storing calories for fuel, so when you really buckle down at work, it can easily run out of energy, which stimulates the drive to eat no matter what’s in your stomach. The problem is that thinking extra hard doesn’t necessarily burn extra calories or increase the amount of calories your body needs to function.
Luckily, there's a simple way to prevent superfluous snacking: Exercising the body after you exhaust the brain can increase the amount of sugar and lactic acid in the blood stream and circulate it to your brain for fuel, which fends off the random urge to eat, according to a study recently published in the medical journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
2. You multitasked through your last meal.
Even if actual hunger led you to the dinner table in the first place, distracted eating could land you in the clean-plate club after your body's physical need for food has been met. That’s because when you use one hand to shovel forkfuls of dinner into your mouth, and the other to thumb through your Facebook feed, your brain can’t fully process the look, smell, and taste of your food as it travels from your plate to your stomach—a bad thing, considering it can take up to 20 minutes for the food you’ve eaten to reach your stomach and send the message to your brain that you’re full, while all those cues can help the brain get the memo before you end up with a button-popping problem.
To avoid overeating in the first place, focus on your food and “eat mindfully.” That means eliminating distractions (phone down!) and putting your fork down between every few bites to actively assess how the food feels inside your body. Then, after you finish the food on your plate, take a breather or break from the dinner table to clear non-essential dishes before you refill or get all up in dessert.
3. You’re watching an action-packed or super-sad movie.
Research suggests the fast camera cuts and sound variations in action movies can trigger snacking and lead you to throw back up to twice as many calories as when you watch something more chill. The same goes for sad movies, so look out for tear-jerkers, too. If you must eat while you watch, just pre-portion your snacks instead of bringing the entire bag of chips over to the couch.
4. You're looking at something D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S.
Humans are designed to feel hunger when we see food, according to evolutionary psychologists, who say it's a survival mechanism that was designed to hold over hunters and gathers in times when food was sparse. But now that food isn't too hard to come by, and you can't open up Instagram without seeing something you'd very much like to eat, this impulse can cause you to consume all the things regardless of your body's energy needs. In this case, just reach for produce before you dig into something crazy.
5. Your clock is telling you it’s time to eat.
Somewhere along the line, humans of yesteryear evolved into supermarket shoppers programmed to eat three square meals a day. But there's no reason to dig into a major dinner if you've snacked throughout the day or force-feed yourself a major morning meal before your stomach is awake enough to actually crave food, especially now that experts doubt the health benefits of breakfast, in the first place.
6. You’re buzzed AF.
Even though alcohol contains lots of calories, drinking it increases your body's desire to eat more, slashes your self control, and (as late-night pizza eaters may already suspect) enhances the short-term rewarding effects of food. Once your brain catches on to this, it associates alcohol with food cravings that feel a lot like hunger regardless of your body's need for food. It's why it's smart to plan ahead for these fake hunger pangs by making sure you're stocked up on the best foods to eat when you're drunk.
7. Your place is a hot mess.
You might not think much of your sink full of dishes or mail-covered kitchen counters. But turns out, simply hanging around a cluttered kitchen can enhance the urge to snack and reach for sweets, in particular, according to one study that found women in chaotic kitchens ate more overall, favoring cookies over crackers and carrots. Just one more reason to keep your countertops clear and food out of sight.
8. You barely drank any water today.
Because most foods contain at least a little bit of water, it's only natural to reach for food when you're super thirsty and it's more readily available than something you can sip. But using food to quench your thirst can amount to lots of extra calories and confuse the fuck out of your actual appetite. It's why it's smart to start snacks and meals with water, which can eliminate any confusion.
9. You’re tired or stressed.
These states accompany a drop in dopamine, a feel-good chemical your body releases as a reward. Because the body releases dopamine when you eat sweets and other delectables, it’s only natural to reach for food when dopamine levels take a nosedive, according to Dr. Sood. “Fake hunger can be satisfied by sensory experiences other than food intake,” Dr. Sood says. So the next time anxiety creeps up on you, try listening to your favorite Spotify channel before resorting to dessert.
10. You already ate something "bad" today.
When you allow yourself to eat something on your mental list of foods that are bad for you, you could fall prey to what psychologist Jean Kristeller, PhD, author of The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle With Food, calls the "I’ve blown it" effect. It's when you finish your small dish of ice cream, then end up eating the rest of the pint right out of the freezer because you've already ruined your healthy eating day. Instead, save your leftovers for later and reach for real food, not dessert. If you're actually hungry, any food should hit the spot (as opposed to something sweet).