Stop me from eating all the things
July 10, 2012 5:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop eating when I'm not hungry?

I've always, always eaten when not hungry, because food tastes good and makes me happy. Until it makes me feel sick. I do eat fairly healthfully these days, lots of veggies, but the fact of the matter is I still eat too much. I can absolutely stuff myself on fruit or roasted veggies. The only meal I'm regularly hungry for is lunch, and the rest of the time it's just om nom nom ugh I feel ill.

I guess you could call it emotional eating, in that I feel emotions, therefore I eat...I eat when bored, I eat when not-bored, I eat when happy, sad, etc. I've read "Intuitive Eating" and try to focus on eating the foods I feel like eating, and only when hungry, but it seems like the end result is just that I'm even more fixated on food all day, and every time my stomach gurgles I wonder if it's a sign of hunger or digestion or what.

I'm working on making the rest of my life more interesting and fulfilling and hoping that will help with eating-as-entertainment, but like I've said, I've always been this way. The only times in my life I can think of when I didn't overeat like this is when I was deeply falling in love with someone or deeply, deeply ill with the stomach flu (I've actually muscled through major stomach pains in order to eat before).

And yes, I would like to lose a few pounds. But another goal is just to not have my life revolve around food all the time. Some obsession is healthy and normal, I think, but I hate feeling like food is the high point of most parts of my day. Like, if I pig out all day and so really should take it easy at dinner, I get sad because making and eating a big dinner is the best part of the evening. So despite not being in the slightest bit hungry, and in fact maybe even feeling slightly ill, I make and eat a big dinner...ugh.

This seems like the sort of question that should have been asked, and I did search for it but couldn't find anything. So my apologies in advance if this has already been thoroughly covered. And thanks in advance for any advice you have.
posted by indognito to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried fasting for a day? It's possible that you don't really know what your body feels like when it's hungry (e.g. you can't interpret your stomach gurgles), so you can't properly gauge when it's time to eat.
posted by phunniemee at 5:43 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

dietary fat = satiation
posted by larry_darrell at 5:49 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Do you work from home? I work from home most days, and I struggle with this as well. I don't have any great solutions other than trying to get out of the house more (if that is possible). I also tend to do better when I keep a food log, and I can see that I just ate and don't need to eat again.
posted by quodlibet at 5:50 AM on July 10, 2012

Compulsive Overeating is an eating disorder. Find a therapist who is expert in this area. Expect the progress to be slow, as the roots of this disorder are tangled indeed.

Another thought is to check out some drugs. The old Fen-Phen was amazing at turning that process completely off. I had ice cream bars in the freezer and simply did not want them when I was on the drug. The Fen-Phen combo is no longer available, but Fentermine, an amphetamine is.

I went on an anti-anxiety drug to see if it would curb the desire to nom, turns out I had anxiety and now I feel great! I still want to eat stuff I probably shouldn't, but the incessant banging in the back of my head stopped.

Note, amphetamines are habit-forming, but my sister has been on a low dose of Fentermine for years now. She's cranky, but at an optimal weight.

Anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants will screw up your weight-loss, big time. So, FYI.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:53 AM on July 10, 2012

Have you seen a therapist or psychiatrist? Regularly eating until you feel sick is not healthy or normal. You should read up on Compulsive Overeating and Bing Eating Disorder.
posted by missmagenta at 5:54 AM on July 10, 2012

Agree with keeping a food log. Plan your meals ahead of time. I do it when my weight creeps up; it's just easier not to eat randomly when that's not even on the table. (Well actually I allow myself to eat outside/over the plan but only when I'm really hungry, and that's a measured amount too.)
posted by BibiRose at 5:54 AM on July 10, 2012

The only times in my life I can think of when I didn't overeat like this is when I was deeply falling in love with someone or deeply, deeply ill with the stomach flu (I've actually muscled through major stomach pains in order to eat before).

Oh, no! This sounds like a tough situation. This is a very standard AskMe answer, but have you considered trying a group like Overeaters Anonymous? It is not just for people who are trying to lose weight; many people who have found OA helpful describe patterns of behavior that are similar to yours. Even if your eating patterns are not as severe as many people who use OA, I bet that some of the coping mechanisms taught there might help you!

The only practical advice I have is to limit the amount of food you have available to you. My dad is famous for buying a candy bar, breaking it in half, and throwing half away. When I have an urge to SNACK FOREVER, I try to fill up on grapes or watermelon because they are mostly delicious fruit-flavored water. Sometimes I feel silly when I frantically tell the waiter to take away the cake (oh, who am I kidding, I never tell the waiter to take away the cake, but sometimes I sacrifice the appetizer) lest I eat more of it, but if it works, it works, and I figure we're all entitled to a little eccentricity.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:55 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some tips from someone who also had a similar problem of eating when not hungry (though perhaps not to the same extent as you):

- Keep a food diary; it doesn't even have to be a diary - I just wrote down every day on a post-it and threw it away afterwards. It's the process of having to record what you're eating, and therefore kind of hold yourself accountable for it, that made me at least take a moment and reconsider eating something.

- Do not keep food in the house. If you find yourself pigging on fruit, don't buy fruit, or only buy it in one-portion sizes. If it turns out more expensive, well, that's short-term loss for long-term gain. Only buy snacks etc in individually packaged sizes, and put all your snacks allowed for the day in a bag or something, and keep the rest hidden (could ask a family member or a roommate to help you force this externally). At the end of the day it still requires willpower to resist opening a second chocolate bar, but at least you can try and put as many psychological barriers as possible to limit its accessibility.

- Control portion sizes at mealtimes. For sides (potatoes, roast veg etc) put them on your plate before you start eating, and stow away the remainders so that you won't be tempted for seconds.

- Keep really healthy snacks around like cherry tomatoes and celery sticks. You can overeat those and not make yourself ill/put on weight because it's basically water.

- Do you do other stuff while you eat? Is eating a social activity for you? For me, I used to do work or watch TV or do other stuff while eating, which made me not really think about what I'm eating and I ate way too quickly. When I eat now, I try to just eat so that I can concentrate on the food, the process of chewing, and appreciate the taste - too often, eating becomes a habit or a subconscious activity that becomes disconnected with its primary purpose (to satiate hunger and appreciate food for what it is).
posted by pikeandshield at 6:08 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I found very helpful when trying to lose weight post-childbirth was telling myself that, when I wanted to eat X, I could indeed eat X -- in twenty minutes. Most of the time, twenty minutes later, the desire had passed. (Sometimes it didn't, and that was fine too.)
posted by kmennie at 6:11 AM on July 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

One tactic is to begin by delaying the eating. You are about to eat, but you are not hungry. Just don't do it right now: wait an hour. Or wait 5 minutes, if that is all you can do at first. The idea is to get into the habit of delaying gratification. If you delay it enough, hey, meal time: eat up! You may be surprised at how short-lived the desire to eat actually is.
posted by thelonius at 6:11 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Huh, I had never actually thought this might be an actual disorder such as compulsive overeating. It feels almost like a biological drive to overeat. It's possible, though, that all of this eating all the time has let me avoid whatever emotions or feelings I would be dealing with if I weren't eating instead. That's very interesting, thanks for the suggestion.

I do usually do other things while eating (like read Metafilter!) and probably need to cut that out.
posted by indognito at 6:13 AM on July 10, 2012

dietary fat = satiation
The aim of this study was to produce a validated satiety index of common foods.


Protein, fibre, and water contents of the test foods correlated positively with [Satiety Index] scores ... whereas fat content was negatively associated.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:27 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a common problem. How do we stop overeating? It's a million dollar question.

You've always ate this way so you are dealing with deeply ingrained habits. I would work on changing your habits slowly.

1. Deep breathing exercises might help you when you're in the situation you describe at dinner time. You have eaten plenty of food during the day. You had a heavy lunch and maybe some snacks and it's time for dinner. A "normal" eater may have a salad or piece of toast with an egg but you are uncomfortable with that. You feel it won't be enough so you eat a large meal. Before you cook or order the large meal do some deep breathing exercises. Start doing these exercises whenever you feel anxious to overeat. Do them in you car, in the subway, on the toilet, at your desk. Sit up, back straight, get to the edge of your seat, rest your hands on your knees and deep breathe. Close your eyes. Inhale through the nose slowly, exhale through your mouth. Repeat. Do this several times a day.

2. A lot of people panic or become deeply uncomfortable with any signs of hunger. Your tummy rumblings are not a reason to panic. There is always food. There is a meal around the corner. All is well. Practice waiting. When I say waiting, don't wait more than three or four hours.

3. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, with one or two snacks. (You might find the snacks unnecessary eventually.)

Intuitive eating is useless for compulsive overeating, binge eaters, or emotional eaters. If you are an emotional eater intuitive eating is impossible until you change your habits and your head. Your very long-term goal is to eventually eat intuitively but since you are a compulsive overeater you need structure. Not a diet plan (ban diet books) but a scheduled eating plan. I lost 30 pounds, and pretty much ended my compulsive overeating, by eating a reasonable breakfast, lunch, dinner, and one or two snacks (mid-morning, afternoon) every day. Your snacks should be small and healthy. Think snack (100 - 200 calories) not meal. You want to be hungry for your next real meal. You are building new habits.

The key word here is reasonable. An example of a reasonable breakfast would be two eggs, two pc. whole wheat toast with butter, raw whole orange, coffee. Another reasonable breakfast might be a small croissant with coffee. An unreasonable breakfast might be something you would get at iHop with whipped cream or a mixing bowl size of cereal. Adhere to three reasonable meals at regular times with one or two snacks per day. Do it day after day until you form new habits. I finally woke up in June 2011 and decided to ban diets for good. I swore I would never eliminate a food group again or go on another diet that was not sustainable. I read up on compulsive eating and binge eating and most of the literature suggests regular meals at regular times. Do NOT skip meals. Adhere to the three meals and two snacks and do not eat between them.

4. Therapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy.

5. Exercise. Exercise for your mental health -- to relieve stress and get some endorphins going. Find something you like.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 6:42 AM on July 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

One easy thing is to only put a serving out - the main pleasure in anything is the first 3-4 bites. Another thing I've found helpful is to actively work on identifying "treats" that are not food.

Like you, food has been the highpoint of my morning, noon, night, and everything in between since my very first diary entries detailed what we had for dinner. So now I emphasize the joy in other bodily pleasures: exercise, yoga, walking with a friend, massage, sex, baths, pedicures, going for a swim - Anything that is a treat that isn't eating. And I try to remember to "reward" myself with time reading a book or gardening or chatting with a friend or any number of other pleasures that aren't food. It helps to take food from "main pleasure" to "yummy fuel".

I still overeat, and I still think about food a lot. But I overeat less, and think less about food, and more about the rest of life.
posted by ldthomps at 6:42 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Add "no seconds" if you tend to "pig out".

Three meals, two snacks, no seconds. Repeat day after day, month after month. New habits will form.
posted by Fairchild at 6:50 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came from a snacking household and had this problem - this is what I found helped me:

First, make sure you are hungry, especially at breakfast. If you wake up and aren't hungry, don't eat until you are. (Of course there are exceptions, like if you're doing strenuous athletics).

Only eat things you are truly and totally in the mood to eat. If that thing is not available, don't settle for something else (within reason, of course). When you do eat, totally immerse yourself in the experience. Enjoy every bite. Eat slowly. Keep portions small. Do not think of foods as being 'guilty' or 'good'.

Plan an amazing meal and spend all day looking forward to it. You will be less likely to overeat the rest of the day when you think of what you are saving room for.

I've found that if you aren't hungry when you eat, food is not really as satisfying. If I'm not hungry when I eat, I don't know when I'm full, so it's harder to know when to stop. Also, I can't successfully snack without overeating, and I feel like snacking/eating several small meals isn't great for my digestion. I do much better having three delicious meals a day.
posted by beyond_pink at 6:53 AM on July 10, 2012

I am a snacker. I haven't completely trained myself out of it (and look to these other answers with interest), but I have managed to curb it a bit:

1. Instead of eating food, I keep a bottle of water with a bit of orange pieces in it by my side. A lot of times, I just want something to put in my mouth, and sipping from a bottle helps that.

2. I make sure to snack on only healthy things -- carrot sticks, apples, etc.

3. I try not to have too much food easily accessible in the house at a time. Just enough for a few days meals -- anything more I put it in the freezer instead of the fridge. Yes this is more expensive, but it stops me from just going to the fridge and eating a whole block of cheese. And thawing things takes time, which stops me from casually eating. Eating takes purpose and time -- as it should!

4. I try to be active -- walking around my house, standing when working, etc. When I'm moving, it's hard to eat! Also, exercise seems to help me regulate my appetite.
posted by bluefly at 7:26 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you find that you just end up eating all day without thinking about it, than you want to try to change that habit. For me the easiest way to do it was to fast. It sounds like it wouldn't be any fun, and it wasn't for a few days, but what it did was give me a clearly drawn line: No food. I drank home made vegetable and fruit juices at meal times so that I was getting all of the vitamins my body needed. By the end of the 4th day, that craving to eat all the time had almost completely gone away. After a week I went back to eating healthy, and the desire to snack in between was gone.

This really depends on your personality, though. I know that I'm the type of person who has to do something completely or not at all. If that sounds like you, than you may do well by eliminating eating all together for a few days, so that you get out of the habit of eating all the time.
posted by markblasco at 7:49 AM on July 10, 2012

Best answer: I'm mostly here to read comments and empathize with you, but I might add I've enjoyed the workbook Why Weight? A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating I also read Intuitive Eating and I do think it's been helpful for me, at least in a simple jump-start/wakeup call kind of way.

I'm not overweight, but I've been dealing with emotional and boredom and stress eating my entire life and have been actively pursuing a healthier, enjoyable relationship with food for this past year. Efforts include keeping a food diary, which is tedious and I don't think one should have to do long term, but it makes you more aware of your eating, and as someone said, makes you accountable. Keep notes about your energy levels, too, in relation to what you eat. In the diary I write psychological findings about myself that I've realized through reading these books, like, oh shit, I eat too much and make myself full because it has a sedative effect on me and I like that at the end of the day. So now I try to find other ways to power down, like having a hot bubble bath.

If you like making a big dinner, then keep that hobby! Put every effort into keeping the rest of your day light. If you work, don't keep snacks at your desk, bring individual portions to work if you find yourself hungry. I agree that you have to find things that keep you full longer. I love veggies, myself, but I know that I'll just be hungry an hour after I eat them, so I try to include lots of protein and good fats.

"it seems like the end result is just that I'm even more fixated on food all day, and every time my stomach gurgles I wonder if it's a sign of hunger or digestion or what. "

It will be like this for the first few weeks after first committing to eating-mindfulness. Think about it like training yourself to recognize the hunger, and if you can keep your mind busy on work and hobbies and whatever, this preoccupation will fade to be background and you'll start just noticing when you're hungry like a "normal" person instead of waiting for it.

I find being consistently athletic in some way or another changes my attitude towards food as well. It's fuel, and tasty fuel at that! I don't really resent or obsess with it like I used to during long periods of inactivity.

Good luck!
posted by Sayuri. at 9:13 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am you. I've always been an emotional eater. Telling myself "It's time to diet" was a surefire way of getting me into panic/obsessy mode as I fantasised about all the food I couldn't eat. I've kind of gotten better in recent months, though. This is how I've done it. Though YMMV.

I know you said that you can overdo it on healthy roasted vegetables, but I struggle with a sugar addiction, and I've found that cutting that out almost completely has done a lot for my general sense of panic and obsession about food. My moods in general have levelled out a lot too. It might just be the placebo effect. But perhaps you could try that. I am easing back into the occasional dessert (I love sweets too much to be able to contemplate a life without them). But I'm trying to make sure they are just that, occasional. For the sake of my moods as much as anything else really.

Another thing has been meals at mealtimes with a snack in between if I need it. If I do overdo it at one meal, I don't skip the next meal.

I have learned to pay attention to my food, really look at it, savour that first taste. The other day I ate a piece of cake (one of my occasional treats) and my friends were laughing at me because I was smiling so much as I ate it.

I have learned to really, really pay attention to my body. I ask myself, "What do you really want to eat?" And then I go and eat that. Sometimes my body surprises me. I've never been a salad-y kind of person, yet I have found myself going and getting a salad because it's hot out and that's what my body needs. And the other day I had a big healthy dinner and a few hours later my stomach was rumbling and I was feeling all empty, so I had a bowl of cereal and didn't beat myself up about it. But for the most part, I've not felt that hungry because I have been listening to myself, eating when I'm supposed to, and trying to eat well.

And yeah I've lost a bit of weight. But more than that, I feel like I am finally getting the better of the panic that I always have felt around food. I'm not crowing about my victory, I will ALWAYS be that person whose instinct is to overeat. But this is what has helped me. Wishing you all the best, I know it's tough. Sorry for the length of this comment - your question resonated with me!
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:20 AM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Here is something to try, along the lines of bluefly's #1 above
Fresh hops.
You can get whole hop flowers at beer making supply stores. they smell lovely.
not chopped up ones you want whole flowers.
now its more like chewing tobacco than gum, you dont gnaw on it, its a flower - , you just put one in your cheek, let it soak and enjoy the lovely flavor, which builds And Builds AND BUILDS AND !!! OK, take it out and throw it away, whew!
you will not need to put anything in your mouth for hours :) your mouth will be singing!
its an appetite suppressant, and a mood stimulant like phen-ben, and its like a red-hot candy,
Once you get addicted to them, you will find there are dozens of different varieties to try.
posted by Abinadab at 9:22 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of people think that counting calories is an "obsessive" way to relate to food, but I find it helps me obsess less about food overall for a few reasons:

1) If I've eaten a reasonable amount of calories, I can feel confident that even if I don't go back for seconds, I'm not going to feel famished later. I don't have to debate whether I'm bored-hungry or really hungry; either I have the calories for a snack, or not.

2) Calories are calories. I don't have to eliminate any particular foods that I enjoy, I just have to watch my portions and not over-indulge more than a couple of days in a row.

3) If I know what I'm going to eat for lunch and dinner, I can take a few minutes to enter everything in the morning and be done thinking about it for the day.

Nowadays are many programs, webpages and apps that will help you track calories. Using a kitchen scale really make measurement easy.

I know it's not a good solution for everyone, but I'm a numbers-oriented kind of person and it works better for me than, well, everything else I've tried to maintain weight loss.
posted by BrashTech at 9:25 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just another tip from an Intuitive Eating fan -

The food journal is a good idea, but sometimes can be rather cumbersome to keep up with.

Consider marking a number down, before and after each meal, relating to a scale of satiety. From 1 to 10, 1 being so ravenous you would eat nearly anything edible, 10 being stuffed to the point of feeling quite sick, jot down your number before and after you eat. You'll start to notice a pattern, like, "Huh, isn't that interesting, I always tend to grab something when I'm at a 4" or "Wow, I always eat until I am a 9 or 10!"

Once you get more skilled at judging how hungry you are before and after your meals and snacks you'll notice along the way you also become more conscious of your satiety and start thinking differently about when to grab something to eat and how much to prepare for your meal. After all, a lot of the reason we overeat is we prepare too much food for our plate and feel like we should eat it all since it's in front of us.

Good luck - I know it's a difficult struggle.
posted by Falwless at 9:52 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Going on a low-carb, high-fat diet has really highlighted the difference for me between emotional eating and "normal" eating. Cutting the carbs basically cut out the "active ingredient" in food-as-a-drug, leaving only food-as-food. So now when I get that itch to go eat something but I find that I don't actually want to eat anything that doesn't contain carbs, it just makes it quite clear to me what it is I'm craving. Since I'm just not eating carby foods, I have to deal with the underlying cause of the craving rather than pushing it down with food.

Sometimes it gets pretty uncomfortable and I'd be lying if I said I never turned to Scotch or peanut butter to try to numb whatever it is that was bothering me, but it's been pretty interesting living without that particular drug in my life anymore.

It helps that I've been in therapy the whole time, too. :-)
posted by callmejay at 10:11 AM on July 10, 2012

Invisalign cures this as a side-effect, at least for the year you're in the program.
posted by w0mbat at 12:28 PM on July 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your great responses.

I really liked Fairchild's answer because I think I *do* need some kind of structure and that seems pretty reasonable. I would LOVE to fast or be able to have calorie-counting work for me, but for some reason these two activities kick into high gear the part of my brain that freaks out and rebels against "the plan" by sending me running for cake.

Thanks again, though, for the answers--they've given me a lot to think about.
posted by indognito at 1:00 PM on July 10, 2012

Some things I do:
1 - Find out what a serving size actually is, and then try to eat a reasonable number of servings of different food groups.
2 - When eating out, separate out a "serving" on my plate -- may be a quarter or less of the food I've been served. When that portion is gone, put a napkin on top of the rest to hide it from view. (If I see it, I can't stop myself from eating it.)
3 - Make a conscious effort to eat healthy(ish) fats that help me feel more full, like avocado, nuts, hard cheeses.
4 - Plan meals ahead of time.
5 - Constantly chew gum, which keeps my mouth moving and my desire for flavor activated.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:05 PM on July 10, 2012

I am back, with a recommendation: I found the Fat Nutritionist's blog a good place to go for non-judgemental and compassionate advice about eating and nutrition. To me it was quite radical how her whole theory is essentially: "You are allowed to eat" and not "You can only eat healthy food".

It was the starting point for my approach outlined in my comment above.

Some of my favourite articles from there:
The rules of nutrition (spoiler: there aren't any)
Giving yourself permission to eat
Getting good at eating

As with every other comment here YMMV. But hopefully you'll find it interesting.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:16 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I eat emotionally to try to block out unbearable feelings. With a lifetime of having had depression, I always have. One small thing that's been helping me lately, is when I start feeling the need to go eat something and its more than half an hour to the next meal, I stop for a second and ask myself "am I hungry, or am I miserable?" If the answer is that I'm genuinely hungry, then ill eat a small snack, and then ask the question again.

If it turns out that I'm miserable, then just having recognised the fact helps just a little in choosing to do something else instead that has a chance of making me a little less miserable, because I can remember umpteen occasions when I did stuff myself in an attempt to fill in that aching hole of painful feelings inside me, and still felt just as bad afterwards as I did when I started, with the added bonus of also feeling physically sick from overeating and a hefty extra dose of self-loathing as well for being a "fat pig". So it helps to consciously remember that I need to go cuddle a pussycat, or have a hot bath, or something else similar that might address those painful emotions rather than trying to shovel something physical into an emotional hole and getting in more of a state when it doesn't work.
posted by talitha_kumi at 8:39 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound like you have problems with satiety, or being hungry - you specifically said you aren't hungry.

The quantity is the bit that gets/hurts me.

I'll absent-mindedly eat until my tummy hurts. For icecream, I don't need to eat very much to feel sore, but it is *delicious*. Therefore, I have a very, very tiny bowl, that I eat icecream in. It can only hold enough icecream for me to not hurt afterwards. Success!

Same for big meals. Get a plate that only holds a non-painful amount of food. Then, enjoy the food!

No seconds. Put the food away, and then go do something entertaining. Drink water, or tea, if you want something to hold, and consume.
posted by Elysum at 5:39 PM on July 15, 2012

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