hungry sign

Why it’s ok to eat when you’re not hungry

Eating when you’re not hungry feels way out of line with intuitive eating, doesn’t it?

I think a lot of people see intuitive eating as the hunger and fullness diet. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. But it’s not the case. It is far more nuanced than that.

Yes, you are encouraged to think about your hunger and your fullness before you’re eating, while you’re eating after you’re eating, but that’s not everything. That’s not all there is to it. There’s so much more that goes into deciding what you eat and when you eat and how much you eat.

So I want to talk about why it’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry. There are going to be times in life when you need to eat because you need to prevent yourself from having issues later in the day.

Let me explain.

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

There will be times when you can't eat

There are going to be times in your day to day life when you just can’t eat. Plans get in the way.

If you’re traveling, for example. You might be going on a train, you might be taking a flight, you might be driving a car, and these are times where maybe you can’t eat. Most of the time travelling is fine because you’re only going to be driving to the shop, for example, or driving to work, or you’re going to be taking a plane and it might just be a couple of hours and you think that’ll be fine. It’s not that long to wait.

But what if you’re going to be on that plane longer? What if you’re going to be on a long train journey with no stops? What if you are going to be driving a long way and it might be a few hours before you’re able to stop?

And then what about days where you’re at work? Maybe you have got a morning full of meetings with no space in between. Then you are going to need to take some preventative action to stop that putting you into a spiral at lunchtime where you’re so hungry that you can’t eat intuitively.

Maybe you need to eat because you need to take medication. If the instructions say you have to take it with food it’s important to do so, because that’s part of making sure that the medication is absorbed and used by the body properly.

Sometimes, if you’re quite early into your intuitive eating journey or you already have an eating disorder or some kind of disordered eating pattern, it can mean that you don’t feel your hunger signals yet and so eating regularly is going to be a preventative and protective measure for you so that you are fuelling yourself and getting some nutrients in while you’re trying to get those body signals back.

And quite honestly, sometimes life just gets in the way and it means that you can’t eat when you usually would. Simple as that.

Practical hunger

When this happens, we turn to practical hunger. That’s what it’s called in intuitive eating. It’s eating even though you’re not hungry because it’s practical to do so.

Your hunger in your body is a guide. It’s something that you can listen to to understand when you’re ready to eat, when you need to eat, but it is just a guide and if you need to eat outside of those times when you’re hungry, then that’s what you need to do.

If you are living just by hunger and fullness cues then you’ve turned them into rules. It becomes new guidelines by which you have to follow and you’re back into diet mentality. If you’re saying you’re only going to eat when you’re hungry then you’re putting yourself in a position where you’ve got rigid rules and that’s not what intuitive eating is about.

Remember this is all about having some intuition around what you need to eat and when you need to eat it and hunger is just a part of that. Through all of this we have to remember that the body isn’t that simple. Your systems in your body aren’t that simple. It’s all so complex so you can’t expect eating to be that simple, and you sometimes just have to be guided by what you know rather than what you feel. 

Practical eating is going to be a preventative measure for you. It’s going to be a way of eating that prevents something negative happening with your eating habits later in the day. It’s going to be a protective measure and it’s going to help you to not end up in a binge later.

preventing The binge restrict cycle

Practical hunger eating is going to make sure that you are not getting to a point where you are absolutely starving hungry because what happens when we’re starving hungry? You end up in the horrible binge restrict cycle again.

Remember the binge restrict pendulum? Imagine a great big pendulum with food restriction on the one side, and eating control on the other side. 

If you just restrict food a little bit and let yourself get just a touch too hungry you’re just going to swing back the other way a little bit, and maybe you’ll have a bit more to eat than you usually would when you’ve got access to food again. 

But if you let that pendulum swing right across into major restriction and you let yourself get super hungry, or you tell yourself you can’t eat certain foods, then when given access to food you’re going to swing back so far the other way that when you’re going to be lacking control and eating a lot more than you usually would – maybe into binging.

You’re going to keep the intuitive eating control that you have learned around food when you just manage that hunger and don’t let it sway to those extremes.

Practical hunger is one of those methods of stopping that pendulum swinging so hard. It’s going to stop you getting so hungry that when you come to eat again, you lose that control.

toasted sandwich

What do I eat if I'm not hungry?

If you’re not hungry but you know you need to eat to stop yourself being starving hungry in a few hours, what are you going to do? How do you know what you’re going to want to eat?

In reality, maybe you don’t know what you’re going to want to eat. Maybe you genuinely don’t know what you want to eat because you’re not hungry yet and so it becomes a case of knowing what you feel you can eat, rather than what you fancy to eat.

Consider how long it’s going to be before your next meal or your next snack. Every 2 to 3 hours to eat is a good rule of thumb. It’s certainly a good rule of thumb if you’re in eating disorder recovery or if you are in the early stages of intuitive eating and you can’t feel your hunger and fullness yet. Ask yourself what you need to eat to get you through the period of time until you can next eat.

Then from there, you can think of what kind of food you would like to eat. What can you manage now even though you’re not hungry? Choose something that you will find easy to stomach. That could be a small bowl of cereal, or a yogurt, maybe a banana or something like that. Choose something that you can eat comfortably.

For you, that might be something that’s very easy to take in, very easy to swallow, doesn’t involve a lot of chewing, doesn’t involve a lot of effort. Or it might be that you think, actually I can manage something a little bit more substantial, and that will see me through the next few hours.

At this point in time, it’s really not about the quantity or the quality of the food. This is about protecting you against that really strong hunger feeling later on in the day. Know that it’s okay to eat outside of your usual habits and your usual patterns. Know that it’s okay to not have a nutrient filled meal at this time. 

It doesn’t have to be a big meal. It doesn’t have to be anything substantial. Maybe you could just have a snack. Maybe you could just have a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts or something like that if that’s all you can manage. 

Maybe you’re going to have a little meal, and a selection of foods and you’re just going to pick through them. 

You just have to see how it feels. You just have to see what you can manage what you feel like eating at that time, and go with it.

It’s going to take the edge off your hunger than to not eat at all. It absolutely is better to have eaten something than to allow yourself to get into a position where your stomach’s rumbling and you are really hungry, and then it becomes stressful and you lose focus and you can’t manage your day. And then the next meal time comes and it’s not as intuitive eating based as you would like it to be.

Convenience foods are great

Convenience foods are are great option too. People are quick to think negatively about convenience foods but prepackaged foods can be an absolute godsend.

If you’ve got a day, for example, where your lunch is not going to happen on time, your evening meal is not going to happen on time, then in the morning it can be a good idea to throw some things in a bag that are prepackaged so that you can eat as and when you can. 

Convenience foods have been created for a reason. They are there to be had in times that you need the convenience aspect of them. And quite honestly, there are many people in the world that have prepacked sandwiches for lunch every day, or will have a microwave meal for their evening meal several times a week, and that’s absolutely fine.

Remember, there is no moral value attached to food. No food good, no food bad. It’s just the way you like to eat, what you like to eat, and when you like to eat it. that is what food should come down to.

unconditional permission to eat

Consider this blog post your absolute unconditional permission to eat whatever you need to eat whenever you need to eat it. This is your permission to eat when you’re not hungry because you know it’s going to be better for you in a few hours time. 

Hey, let’s face it, we all have cakes and biscuits and chocolate and donuts when they’re in the office, even if we’re not hungry, don’t we? We all eat those when we’re not hungry, so why would there be anything wrong with eating something else when you’re not hungry as a protective and practical measure to help you manage your day?

It’s fine. It is absolutely fine.

Go with it. Do what you need to do to protect the work that you are doing to be an intuitive eater.

Do what you need to do to have a better relationship with food.

Please note, this post is intended to be general information only. Every care has been taken to ensure that facts and figures are correct at the time of posting. As always, please seek the support of a registered professional before making changes to your diet or lifestyle⁠, or if you feel that you are affected by any of the topics discussed. 

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