The effects of eating when not hungry: what happens to your body?

It’s safe to say that we all occasionally eat when we’re not hungry. In fact, most of us tend to underestimate our food decisions, often putting more food on our plates than we need or snacking even when we’re not really hungry. But what happens to your body when you eat without feeling hungry?

Understanding hunger signals

Our body tells us when to eat and when to stop eating. Two hormones are responsible for these signals: ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin stimulates appetite and signals hunger, while leptin acts as an appetite suppressant that tells our brain we are full and signals satiety. These hormones depend on each other, but some people develop resistance to leptin. Additionally, it can take up to 20 minutes for most people’s brains to signal that they are full.

It can disrupt your blood sugar levels

Eating when you’re not hungry can negatively impact your blood sugar levels, especially if you’re snacking on highly processed foods. Eating between meals causes a spike in your blood sugar levels, followed by a crash, making you feel sluggish and moody. Such spikes in blood sugar, and consequently in insulin, can also lead to other health problems, including type 2 diabetes.

It can affect your weight

Eating more increases your calorie intake and can therefore lead to weight gain, especially since most of us tend to eat high-calorie foods. This is particularly true when we eat while distracted (for instance, watching a game or a movie on TV). We can easily finish a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream without realizing we are full.

It can affect your digestion

The digestive process is influenced by both mental and physical processes. Smelling or looking at food is enough to trigger several processes in our digestive system. If we are not relaxed and/or not paying attention to what we eat, our digestive system might not release the necessary enzymes to process the food we consume, leading to discomfort. According to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, not paying attention to what we eat can make the digestive process 30% to 40% less effective.

It can affect your mood

What we eat affects our mood, and eating (often overeating food) leads to the release of dopamine in our brains, making us feel good. Naturally, this high is followed by a crash. According to a 2001 study, eating is a highly reinforcing behavior that elicits feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. Eating when we’re not hungry can just be a way to fuel our dopamine addiction.

It can affect your sleep

You might not think much about a bedtime snack, but if you reach for leftover pizza or a piece of cake, it can affect your sleep. A 2018 study by the University of Arizona found that there is indeed a link between craving junk food and poor sleep quality. In the study, 60% of participants who slept poorly were nighttime snackers. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that binge eating in women was positively associated with getting insufficient sleep, poor sleep, trouble falling asleep, feeling sleepy during work or leisure time, and disturbed sleep.