Do you ever find it difficult to stop eating when you’re not hungry?
For instance, by catching yourself eating more of a particular food than you’d originally intended to? Or mindlessly reaching for the refrigerator door in search of something to munch on?
This happens to the best of us, and yes, even to registered dietitians.
I, for one, know I’m way more likely to eat when I’m not hungry when I don’t get enough sleep. Since I’m currently caring for a little one under one, this challenge is a daily one!
Luckily, over the years, I’ve amassed a bag-full of tips and tricks that help me avoid relying on food when I’m not actually hungry.
And today, I’d like to share 6 of them with you.
These are the same tips that have helped many of my clients and the ones I will continue to rely on until my baby finally decides to sleep more than 6 hours in a row.
1. Evaluate Your Hunger
The first step in avoiding mindless eating when tired is to identify whether you’re truly hungry.
I’m aware that this sounds very simple. But having been in my line of work for close to a decade, I’ve come to realize that many people fail to identify their true hunger.
Hunger should be a physical feeling — not a mental one. For instance, a grumbling stomach is a true sign of physical hunger.
However, a craving for a specific type of food — say a toast with peanut butter or dairy-free Ben & Jerry’s — is rarely a sign of physical hunger.
If you have a hard time distinguishing physical hunger from mental hunger, the free worksheet at the bottom of this article should help guide you through the process.
When in doubt, try eating a whole food — for instance a piece of fruit. If the thought of this doesn’t appeal to you, you’re likely not physically hungry. In which case, try a different way to re-energize!
I like to make a list of the activities that I find energizing to keep on hand when I’m feeling tired and uninspired. And one of the activities at the top of my list is to get moving — which brings me to my next tip.
In sum: Identifying whether your hunger is physical or mental is one way to stop eating when not hungry. If it’s physical; eat. If not, move on to another activity.
2. Get Moving
Physical activity is one thing that always gets me re-energized after a very short night of interrupted sleep.
This is likely to work for you too. That’s because exercise gets your blood pumping, circulating oxygen throughout your body and generally boosting energy levels.
There’s no need to commit to an hour-long gym session if you don’t want — or have the time — to. Simply stepping outside to move a little will do.
For instance, when I’m feeling drained and tempted to start foraging for food even though I’ve just finished eating, I try to go for a walk with my baby.
Or if it’s pouring outside, I try having an indoor dance party for two! You can also try a mommy and baby workout video or a postnatal yoga routine.
And if it gets you laughing, even better. I always find myself re-energized after having a good laugh but just find what works best for you!
The point is to find an activity that you find enjoyable and that momentarily refills your energy tank, so that you avoid using food to fill this void.
In sum: A pleasant session of physical exercise can help boost your energy levels and prevent you from using food to fill the void.
3. Try Napping with Your Little One
I know first hand how sacred nap times can be. As a mom, my baby’s nap times are some of the rare moments in the day that I have for myself. So I definitely cherish them.
I also know how tempting it can be to try to cram as much of your to do list in while your baby is sleeping.
But when I’m feeling sleep deprived, I find that having a short nap myself makes the biggest difference in my day. It also gives me so much more energy to get through that list afterwards.
For the most effective power nap, try setting your alarm clock for 30 minutes. Or if you need a bit of a rest, aim for 90 minutes, which is around one full sleep cycle.
Any time in between can make it more difficult to wake up and tends to leave you feeling groggier once you do.
You may also want to experiment with having a cup of coffee right before you go sleep. It usually takes about 30 minutes before your body starts feeling the effects of the caffeine (1).
So having it already circulating in your system will make it easier for you to wake up once you hear that alarm clock.
In sum: Short naps can be an effective way to re-energize without unnecessarily relying on food. For best results, set your alarm clock for a 30 or 90 minute nap.
4. Re-Energize with Fluids
If you’re lacking energy but aren’t physically hungry, you can try re-energizing with fluids rather than food.
Most people tend to drink too little throughout the day and this can cause energy levels to drop (2).
If you find it difficult to remember to drink, try placing visual reminders throughout your house. For instance, a bottle of water flavored with frozen fruit on the kitchen counter, or a pot of tea on your coffee table.
In sum: Drinking enough throughout the day can help keep your energy levels up and help you stop eating when you’re not hungry.
5. Eat Real Foods
When you’re tired and truly physically hungry, it’s easy to gravitate towards what’s easiest to grab and eat.
Unfortunately, this rarely ends up being the most nutritious options.
One way I avoid falling into poor snacking behavior is to make a conscious effort to eat real foods rather than snack foods.
For me, this might mean having a plate of leftovers or making a veggie-filled wrap instead of grabbing a bowl of veggie chips or oreos with a glass of soymilk.
Meals tend to be more nutritionally balanced and richer in protein, healthy fats and fiber than snacks. This is why they tend to help you feel fuller for longer and keep cravings at bay more effectively.
I also try to make nutritious foods as easily accessible as possible.
For instance, I might pre-cut my veggies the day I bring them home from the supermarket so they’re easy to see and grab when I open my refrigerator.
Or make a batch of roasted chickpeas on the weekend as a protein-packed option to eat throughout the week.
In sum: Keeping pre-prepped nutritious foods on hand can make it easier to satisfy your hunger than eating less-nutritious snacks.
6. Eat Mindfully
This last tip is probably what helps me the most after a short night of sleep.
When I’m over-tired, I know I have the tendency to graze throughout the day, often while doing something else.
The problem with eating in this way is that your brain doesn’t fully register what you’ve eaten. This makes it harder to satisfy your mental hunger.
One way to prevent mindless eating from taking over is to keep the foods you want to avoid mindlessly eating out of sight.
Another tip I heavily rely on is to sit down at the table to eat, pausing all other tasks to do so.
I personally find that eating mindfully in this way makes it easier to savour my meal. In turn, this helps feed both my body and mind.
It also reduces the likelihood that I’ll want to grab something else to munch on without actually being hungry. As a bonus, this strategy also makes it easier to avoid mindlessly eating my baby’s leftovers as a way to clean them up!
In sum: Eating mindfully and keeping some foods out of sight can help keep you from eating when you’re not actually hungry.
To Sum It Up
It can be difficult to avoid overeating — particularly if you’re tired.
The six tips above are the ones I personally use, as a registered dietitian, to stop eating when not hungry.
I’d love to hear about yours — so feel free to share them in the comments below!
If you find it challenging to distinguish physical from mental hunger, I encourage you to download the free worksheet below. It’ll help walk you through the process.