It's okay to eat when you're not hungry
Intuitive eating has been gaining traction as a method of eating that tunes into natural signals of hunger and fullness and puts pleasure and satisfaction when eating as the forefront goals. Unfortunately, many people have translated eating intuitively as eating only when physically hungry. There are a few issues that arise when you only eat when hungry:
- Food isn't always available. Let's say you aren't hungry while you're getting ready for work in the morning. But your job or school schedule doesn't allow you to just stop and eat whenever you do get hungry. You may get hunger pangs and have trouble concentrating by 10 am and lunch break isn't until 12:30. It may seem like your body is okay running on an empty tank for a little while, but eventually, it will start to rebel.
- You may rarely feel hungry. Some people find it difficult to decipher hunger cues, or maybe have a health condition (such as disordered eating, gastrointestinal conditions, anxiety or depression, etc.) that makes it hard to feel hungry. You could wait until you feel hungry to eat, but that might mean hours or even a whole day before you eat something, and you would not get adequate calories, protein, and other nutrients from the food your body needs.
- Food isn't strictly fuel. There's no doubt food is enjoyable. There would be less of a drive to seek food if it wasn't, and humans would struggle to survive. If you strictly ate for hunger, there would be less pleasure and satisfaction from food. That would mean no favorite foods, no coffee or cozy cup of tea on a cool day, no dessert with dinner, and no holiday or celebratory eating. What is life without those pleasures?
Not only is it okay to eat when you're not hungry, but it's often a smart self-care decision to eat when not hungry. Have you ever made yourself go to the bathroom before embarking on a long car or airplane trip, even if you didn't have to go at the moment? Eating in anticipation of your body's nutritional needs is equivalent to going to the bathroom before a long trip; you do it because it will prevent future bodily discomfort.
Nutrition research may be ever-changing, but what remains consistent is the knowledge that humans need regular fueling. Breaking the overnight fast with food within 1-2 hours of waking up and eating about every 3-5 hours throughout the day is what bodies function best with.
Eating breakfast, even when you're not hungry, will prevent the dip in focus, energy and mood before you have an opportunity to eat again. Eating regularly throughout the day will likely provide you with adequate calories, protein and nutrients even when your anxiety, depression or other medical condition prevents your body from telling you it needs fuel.
Food is meant to be enjoyed. This means sometimes you will enjoy food when you're not hungry, and that's okay. If you're worried about whether you're eating enough, how often you're eating when you're not hungry, or if you are concerned that food has become your primary tool for coping with emotions, seek the help of an intuitive eating-informed registered dietitian.