Should I eat if I’m not hungry? Should I wait to eat until I am hungry? How hungry? And what should I eat when I’m not hungry? You’ve probably heard a few answers to these questions depending on who you are listening to and whatever diet trend is popular this week.
But the answer isn’t as clear cut as you may want it to be. In fact, the answer to these questions depends on many factors.
What is your diet history? Do you have a history of eating disorders or disordered eating? What are your caloric needs? Are you new to intuitive eating or an intuitive eating veteran?
All of these questions play a part in determining if you should eat if not hungry. In this article, we will be diving deeper into your specific needs and in what situations you should eat when not hungry vs. what situations you should wait to eat until you are hungry.
What are my needs? What category do I fall under?
So, to keep this as simple as possible, we’re going to discuss three different categories that can help you determine if eating when you aren’t hungry is right for you.
These three categories are: history of eating disorders or disordered eating, intuitive eater and high caloric needs. How do you know which category (or categories) you fit under? Well, let’s go ahead and go over each of these categories!
History of eating disorder or disordered eating
If you have previously been diagnosed with an eating disorder and are in recovery, you would fit into this category. But, you also fit into this category if you have a history of disordered eating. So what does this mean?
You may be a disordered eater if you exhibit irregular eating habits, but don’t necessarily fit the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.
Examples of disordered eating include:
- Yo-yo dieting (dieting, losing weight, gaining it back, going on another diet)
- Strict rules around food and exercise
- Feelings of guilt and shame surrounding food and exercise
- Constant thoughts about food and body image
- Loss of control around food
- Using food restriction and exercise to “make up” for diet slip ups
If this sounds like you, you should be in the disordered eating category.
If you are an intuitive eater, you feel at peace with food and do not try to control your food intake in a way to control your body shape and size.
In fact, there are ten principles of intuitive eating, outlined in the book “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (affiliate link).
These principles include:
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Feel your fullness
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Cope with your emotions without food
- Respect your body
- Exercise – feel the difference
- Gentle nutrition – honor your health
I suggest checking out my article if you want a more in depth description of each of these principles. Click here to read the article. If you feel like these principles highlight the way you eat (for the most part), you would be considered an intuitive eater.
High caloric needs
The final category pertains to you if you have high caloric needs. But how do you know what would be considered high caloric needs?
Well, there are going to be a few people that fit into this category.
These people would include athletes, those with any type of condition that increases calories burned per day, or those who struggle with weight gain.
Athletes tend to burn far more calories than those who are sedentary or just exercise recreationally. If you are exercising intensely, most days of the week for an hour or more, you likely need more calories and have a harder time gaining weight.
Those with conditions that increase caloric expenditure also would fit into this category. If you have a medical condition that makes it difficult to gain or maintain your weight, then you would fit into this category.
Finally, if you struggle to gain or maintain your weight for any reason, whether this is due to a naturally fast metabolism or working on your feet throughout the day, you would also fit into this category.
Situations where you should eat if not hungry
Now that you know what category or categories you fall under, we can now discuss if you should eat when not hungry or wait until you are hungry.
There are two categories that should eat when not hungry: those who have a history of eating disorders and disordered eating and those who have high caloric needs.
History of eating disorder or disordered eating
Those with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating tend to have modified levels of leptin and ghrelin, hormones that produce hunger and fullness cues. Therefore, they may not be able to fully rely on their hunger and fullness cues.
Because of this, I would recommend starting off with a regular eating pattern to help restore these cues. For example, focusing on eating every 3-4 hours and including a carbohydrate, fat and protein source at every meal and snack is a great start.
Eventually, when these hunger and fullness cues begin to regulate, adopting an intuitive eating pattern can be a great long term solution.
High caloric needs
Those with high caloric needs can also benefit from a regular eating pattern to ensure they are getting in enough calories to maintain or gain weight (depending on their goals).
For this population, just eating when hungry can lead to a lower calorie intake vs. eating every few hours. If you fall under this category, I suggest always keeping a snack on you and planning out main meals to ensure you are eating regularly.
If you are an athlete specifically, I highly suggest my friend Cat at Hammer Fuel Sports Nutrition. She is a Registered Dietitian who specializes in this field.
Situations where you should wait to eat until you are hungry
If you fit into the category of intuitive eater, I would suggest waiting until you are hungry before eating. But there is some nuance to consider with this.
First, it’s important to know how to recognize early hunger cues. If you wait until you are very hungry, you are far more likely to overeat at your next meal. But if you recognize hunger cues early, you will have something to eat right away and can squash those hunger pangs right off the bat.
Hunger cues to look out for
You are probably wondering how to spot early hunger cues and what they may look or feel like. Examples to look out for include:
- A gurgling or gnawing feeling in your stomach
- Growling noises or stomach pain
- Feeling of lightheadedness
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling irritable or faint
- Having a slight headache
Of course everyone is different, so I encourage you to hone in on these feelings when they occur and see which of these sensations tend to occur right before you feel strong hunger.
Then, you can begin to recognize these feelings without focusing too hard!
I would suggest taking a few weeks to really focus on reading hunger cues to get a hang of it. You will notice those feelings of intense hunger will no longer occur.
Final Thoughts: Should I eat if I’m not hungry?
Knowing what kind of eater you are is essential in determining when you should eat and if you should wait until you are hungry.
I hope this article opened your eyes a bit and helped you determine what way of eating will work best for you based on your unique needs.