One of the cardinal rules of dieting is “Eat only when you’re hungry.” I often find that the fear of eating when not hungry is one of the most difficult bits of dogma to overcome. People with eating disorders and good dieters everywhere have been taught that this is all that stands in the way between us and complete loss of control and utter disaster in our lives. Many don’t even see it as an actual choice or symptom of the eating disorder.
Successful recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating or chronic dieting requires overcoming and challenging this rule.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of reasons to eat when not hungry. Here are a few related to disordered eating:
- You have overridden your hunger cues for years from cycles of dieting, bingeing and purging. You don’t recognize normal hunger cues or satiety. Your treatment team has told you to eat regularly—three meals and two to three snacks per day. You feel like it is too much food and you’re not hungry. Should you follow their meal plan? Yes! Eating regularly is a crucial step in recovering from any eating disorder and it helps to regulate your hormones and circadian rhythms so you can regain your hunger and satiety cues and become a more intuitive eater.
- You are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder and rarely feel hunger. You are told you need to eat more, but you don’t believe it. Isn’t it better to delay eating until later in the day? Should you really eat breakfast and lunch at the times scheduled by your dietitian? Yes, absolutely! Regular meals are critical to getting all of your body functions to work properly again. One of the reasons you may not be feeling adequate hunger could be delayed gastric emptying, which occurs when someone is undereating and food remains in the stomach far longer than it should. One of the consequences is low appetite. The solution: eat regularly as prescribed, even if you’re not hungry.
I can think of many more situations that apply to all of us, not just those with eating disorders:
- You normally eat dinner at 7 pm and your circadian rhythm is conditioned to get hungry then. But your sister has scheduled a family dinner at 5:30 to accommodate her children so they won’t be cranky at the table. Should you eat at 5:30 before you are hungry? Absolutely! Adjusting our schedules allows us to have meaningful social interactions that typically revolve around eating.
- You have a meeting that is scheduled from 12 to 3 pm. You’re not hungry at 11 am; breakfast was only at 8:30. You have the option to have a proper lunch at 11:30. Should you? Of course! Be practical—it’s better to eat before your meeting. Then you’ll be properly fueled and will be better able to concentrate during the meeting. Our brains don’t function as well when they’re low on glucose. Planning ahead and adjusting mealtimes accordingly is an important act of self-care.
- You are traveling to another country. You arrive at your destination and it’s dinnertime. Your circadian rhythms are all thrown off. You feel like you’ve been eating constantly. Should you eat? Yes! Acclimation to a new time zone is ushered along by institution of regular eating at the times appropriate to the destination. You will adjust faster if you get your body in synch.
- You just had a rough breakup. You’re eating meals, but sad. Your friends show up and want to take you out for ice cream to cheer you up. You’re not hungry. Should you go and eat ice cream with your friends? Absolutely! Food is not solely about nutrition – it’s also about bonding and comfort, and you should let the ice cream and your friends soothe your broken heart.
- You’re stressed and preparing for a presentation tomorrow. You’ve eaten adequately throughout the day and are not truly hungry. But you know that crunching on some popcorn will soothe your nerves. This is an old behavior that you’ve overused in the past. Contrary to popular belief, emotional eating is not itself a problem. Food is our earliest comfort and humans are designed to find food to be rewarding. If it were not, we would have died out as a species. There is no shame in using food as comfort—what can be problematic is if there are no other tools in your emotional toolkit. If eating is your only coping skill then I encourage you to learn some other strategies for managing negative emotions to give you a broader range of alternatives.
So, not eating when you’re not hungry is a rule that should be confronted. How can you start to challenge this rule and, if you have one, the eating disorder that uses it as an excuse?
You must face it head-on with new behaviors, deliberately defying it. If you have been instructed to follow a meal plan: follow it. If you have been told you are undereating: practice eating one thing per day when you are not hungry. The next time you have something in your schedule that interferes with a normal meal time: eat beforehand. Accept invitations to eat at times to which you are unaccustomed. Eat something spontaneously when it shows up, even if you are not hungry.
By practicing these behaviors, you will become less fearful of eating when not hungry. You will learn that this, too, is a normal part of being a human. You will be more relaxed around food and you will see that nothing horrible happens if you eat when you’re not hungry. You do not have to continue to be a victim of diet culture.