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Food, family and diabetes: eating when you're not hungry

In this new series about the psychology of food and eating, Dr Jen Nash explains the habit of eating when you’re not hungry and offers practical ways to deal with it.

How often do you eat when you’re not really hungry? One minute your hand’s in the biscuit tin, the next that biscuit’s found its way into your mouth. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there!

This is called ‘mindless eating’ – when you’re eating because your mind is somewhere else and for a reason other than hunger. The food was there and you picked it up automatically and unconsciously, or because you wanted a distraction or break.

Mindless eating

We all eat mindlessly for non-hunger reasons – this is natural and very human. The difficulty, when we want to manage our diabetes more carefully or are struggling to lose weight, is that mindless eating may occur more often than we would like.

Traditional weight-loss advice often focuses on changing the what and how much we’re eating, but a psychological approach encourages us also notice why we are eating. It involves becoming aware of the times we are eating and asking ourselves: ‘Is food what I really need right now?

Given that mindless eating is unconscious, this is easier said than done. So here’s a three step ‘WHY’ process to help you.

WHY is an acronym for…

Wait

This first step is all about pausing before you eat, which is not as easy as it sounds because it’s often an unconscious act. In the short term, you may need to use a symbolic prompt on your dominant hand or wrist – usually the hand you write with and the one you use to reach for food. Some ideas or reminders include:

  • moving your watch so it’s on your dominant wrist
  • wearing a charity band, elastic band or hair band
  • writing a star on the back of your hand
  • wearing a ring
  • painting your nails and so on…

Anything that acts as a trigger when you are reaching for food to remind you that you need to stop and think about what you are about to eat will be good. Wearing a signal in this way is just a short-term strategy, until the automatic nature of eating is interrupted.

Hungry

The second step is to ask yourself:

‘Am I hungry?’ Or ‘Is food what I really need right now?’

You might not know if you’re really hungry – many of us have lost our ability to detect hunger because in our modern lives we tend to eat by the clock or because someone else has prepared something for us or it’s just there, available and looks delicious.

One way to figure out whether you’re actually hungry is to find your ‘Hunger Number’, which is to rate your hunger by tuning into your stomach and asking yourself:

‘How hungry am I, on a scale of 0-10?’

Where 10 is fit to burst or beyond full (think a post-Christmas or celebration meal for most of us), and 1 is ready to being faint from hunger.

Many people’s hunger number is around a 4, anywhere between 3 and 5 is usual.

If you rate your hunger above your hunger number, you are not ‘truly’ hungry. You can start to ask yourself, ‘What am I hungry for?’ because if you’re eating, and not hungry, then you may be trying to solve a problem that food wasn’t designed to fix.

The term ‘problem’ is used very broadly – it may be simply that you’re bored and or want a distraction. Maybe you’re with someone who is eating, you’ve had a busy morning and want a break or a bit of ‘me-time’.

Yes

The final step is to say ‘Yes’. If your hunger number is telling you that you are physically hungry, say ‘Yes’ and eat. If you’re not truly hungry and still eat – that’s ok too! For now, the question to hold in mind is:

‘Can I get my hunger met by something other than food?’

If you realise you’re actually hungry for fun, can you find something other than food that will meet this need? You might want to create a list of 10 things you can do other than eat when you feel this way.

Using the why process is designed to help you to decide what you are truly ‘hungry’ for.

Unfortunately, this why process isn’t going to transform your eating patterns overnight. You’ve probably been in the habit of eating when you’re not hungry for a while, so it will take time to see changes. It’s fine to use food to deal with non-hunger problems some of the time – we all do. The problem is for many of us food has become the default, or the ‘go-to’ way of dealing with problems it wasn’t designed to fix. You need to have a range of ways of dealing with non-food hunger, to work out what you are truly ‘hungry’ for – so you are in control, not the food.

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