This Is Why You Eat When You're Not Hungry, And Exactly How To Break The Pattern (A Naturopathic Doctor Explains)

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There is something temptingly satisfying about turning on the television after a hard day at work and grabbing for that bag of chips. Even the most conscientious eaters in my naturopathy clinic admit to late-night eating, and the unfortunate reality is: It’s undoing the rest of their efforts.

Snacking in front of the television is one popular example of how we eat, not often in response to true physiological hunger, but out of well-formed habit. I call it habit hunger. Many people have come to associate a bowl or two of unhealthy eats with relaxing in front of the TV at the end of the day. Habits, as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows, are hard to break.

After helping thousands at my clinic shed substantial pounds, I consider my approach to weight loss one of first healing the body then changing the body. To be successful at altering eating patterns and habits you must first recognize why you are eating, and then with gentle understanding and a little distraction, change the way you are eating. Sound complicated? It doesn’t have to be. Here’s a step-by-step approach to breaking bad eating habits, healing your body, and changing your body for good:

1. Identify the association.

As with any problem, awareness is the very first step. Hopefully in reading this article, you have come to realize that eating is often a response to a complex number of factors and not always or simply in response to physiological hunger cues. True physiological hunger comes when the body is running low on fuel and signals to you that it’s time for a refill. The trouble is, many of us never let our bodies run on empty. We never get to the point that we recognize stomach grumbles, pangs, or even feelings of irritation and unsteadiness as our body gets ready for a new meal.

Ask yourself the next time—and every time—you're reaching for something to eat: why am I eating? Keep a food journal to help you identify not just when and what you are eating, but why you are eating. I think you will begin to see some patterns.

2. Break the association.

The goal, once the negative associations are identified, is to tease apart the trigger—television goes on, for example—from the action. You can do this in a number of ways:

  • Avoid the trigger all together for a period of time. This lessens the strength of the association. Example: avoid watching television for a while and choose an active nighttime activity like yoga, walking, or even reading or listening to a podcast.
  • Replace the response with a healthier one. Rather than reaching for an unhealthy treat (don’t bring these into the house) find a healthier alternative. Example: Munch on raw vegetables, air-popped popcorn, or rice cakes instead. If it’s more about keeping your mouth busy, try sucking on mints or other hard candies. If it’s more about keeping your hands busy, play cards with your partner, learn to knit or try coloring for adults.
  • Find a better reward. If eating and watching television are thought of as rewards (I did great today, I deserve a treat!) try to find a healthier treat. A cup of tea, a long bath, a meditation session—these are all rewarding, enjoyable, and healthy end-of-day prizes.
  • Bring conscious choice back into it. A habit is a way for the brain to conserve energy. If you are in the habit of wearing the same shirt every day, that’s one less decision for your brain to make each morning. When you introduce conscious thought again, you are in a position to make a different choice. If eliminating a habit entirely feels boring and like a real knock to your enjoyment of life, restrict the time when the pattern can surface. In our late-night eating example, this means making sure you can have your Saturday night movie and eat your snack too. You can! Just consciously plan your snack in advance, try portion control, and challenge yourself to think healthy and delicious for the remainder of the week. You will begin to see this bigger picture as far more satisfying than knee-jerk snacking all week long. A planned consumption leaves you feeling balanced rather than guilty.
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3. Create new, fulfilling habits.

And finally, as part of your process of breaking unhealthy habits, you have probably identified new fulfilling habits that can serve you in better ways. Habits don’t have to be a bad thing. But when it comes to hunger, it is better to eat in response to physiological cues, rather than environmental, emotional, or situational ones.

Still not feeling connected to your hunger cues? This woman said quitting exercise (!) for a little while was the best thing she did to lose weight. If you're not ready to "love your body," give body neutrality a shot.

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