Some people read the title of this post and scratched their heads in consternation.  “Huh?” they’re thinking.  “Why would someone eat if they’re not hungry?”

Go away.  This conversation is not for you.  Come back tomorrow, there will be more for you, I promise!

Okay, now it’s just us entertainment eaters.  Good.

I have lost 27 pounds since my sophomore year of college (ugh, almost 14 years ago).  I wish I could say that those 27 pounds came off in a year.  But they didn’t.  More like 10 years.  I’ve been pretty good about changing some of my habits. Like… treating non-fat cappuccinos as dessert.  Buying small pints of ice cream even though they’re more expensive per ounce (you don’t really save any money by buying ice cream by the gallon and then joining a gym and Jenny Craig to burn it off, ya know?).  Drinking flavored seltzers instead of sodas.  Avoiding anything with a drive thru unless I’m getting coffee.

But one thing I struggle to overcome is my urge to eat for entertainment.  By nature, I crave nearly constant stimulation.  I like excitement and energy, celebration and indulgence.  Feasting and merry-making are like air and water to me.  I identify with Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So if I’m dragged down by the coarseness of life, or suffering from a bit of doldrums when my schedule is maddeningly repetitive, my mind dreams up stimulating activities.

Can I lounge on a beach in Tahiti? No, but I can drink a piña colada and dream.  Can I return to the summers of my childhood where I played all day in my swimming pool? No, but I can buy the fudgecicles that used to fill our freezer.  Can I embark on a dazzling new voyage and immerse myself in new culture and experiences?  No, but I can experiment with exotic cooking.  On and on it goes… decadent, luxurious food can titillate my senses, evoke exotic destinations or even just revisit the halcyon days of my past.

The trouble with eating when you’re not hungry is that the food doesn’t fix whatever trouble you find yourself in.  It may be a temporary soothing solution, but eventually the soothing will wear off and you’ll either have to fix whatever was bothering you or…. eat something else.  And when you’re constantly eating to alleviate discomfort from boredom, anxiety, dissatisfaction, excitement, disappointment and so forth, you will find yourself at an unhealthy weight in a surprisingly short amount of time. In other words, as the saying goes, “If hunger is not the problem, then eating is not the solution.” 

What is the solution, then?

I guess it depends on what the problem is.  Are you comforting yourself with your mom’s banana pudding and fried chicken because you’re homesick?  Then maybe a phone call home or booking a cheap airline ticket is the solution.

Are you tired of the drudgery of your daily routine?  Then maybe the solution is to have an outing at a park, museum or movie just to change up the monotony.

Do you feel deprived of luxuries, maybe because you’ve been on a strict diet or budget?  Then an at-home jour de la beauté might be in order complete with bubble baths, beautiful music, deep conditioning, exfoliation, mani-pedis… the works.  If you can afford to go to a day spa, so much the better.  Groupon has deals all the time for pampering.  You can also check if your local beauty school has a student clinic.

Are you simply bored? Work isn’t challenging? Or you’re just not where you want to be in life?  Then it’s time to figure out what changes need to be made.  Check out a new academic program online or start looking for new jobs.  Maybe even find a new city if you feel you’re stagnating.

Solving the urge to eat when you’re not hungry is difficult because you have to:

1. Recognize that you’re eating for a reason other than hunger

2. Figure out what feeling you’re trying to use food to avoid.  This is painful. The whole point of eating when we’re not hungry is to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions.  Deliberately searching out what we’re trying to avoid isn’t fun, but necessary.

3. Find healthy behavior to substitute for the food.

4.  As Sheryl Canter says in her book Normal Eating for Normal Weight: Sometimes we just have to feel bad.  Sometimes we just have to sit with an uncomfortable emotion or memory and wait for it to pass without distracting ourselves.

5.  If all else fails, seek help from a professional counselor to get to the bottom of the issues.

Do you have any tips for overcoming the urge to eat when you aren’t hungry? I’d love to hear them!