Why do I eat when I am not even hungry?

mindful eating to deal with sugar cravings
Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

May 29, 2021

updated 26 Nov 2021

 In this article, I explore where sugar cravings come from and the 6 different types of “non-hunger eating”.

Let’s face it, we all know deep down that we should eat more vegetables and stay away from processed foods, don’t we?

Then why is it so difficult?

Why can we have the best intentions to follow a healthier diet and then see a piece of cake and eat it – only to feel guilty afterwards?

Even when we understand what certain foods do to our body or how damaging they can be, it won’t stop us from having that highly processed doughnut full of sugar and fat.

Even if we are completely stuffed from a beautiful filling meal, once the dessert menu arrived, all satiety signals are over-ruled by “I want to have this chocolate brownie now!”

We are intelligent and driven women and men, very disciplined and hardworking in our jobs in the office or at home and yet we can make stupid decisions when it comes to what we eat.

Let me give you some reasons why we might eat when we are not even hungry. Understanding these reasons behind it, and being aware of them is the first step to creating a healthier relationship with food.

Physical reason:

Symptoms: Hunger, unbalanced Blood sugar, gut dysbiosis, thyroid issues, certain medications, menopause

Possible solutions: Following blood sugar balancing guidelines, having your thyroid and other hormones checked out, having a stool test to check for bacterial esp yeast overgrowth, if on medication – counterbalance with the right nutrients or diet. Adding on specific nutritional support with the right foods and possibly supplements.

Emotional reason:

Symptoms: Feeling bored, unhappy, depressed, lonely, stressed.

Feeling happy, rewarding yourself, celebrating something, “treating” yourself.

Mind-set “I just haven’t got the time”, body image, limiting beliefs “I can never stick to a diet for long” “I can never lose weight”, “hating” your body.

Possible solution:

These can be very complex issues and it is important to recognise when someone needs help outside the realm of a nutritional therapist, such as a psychotherapist or counselling.

Otherwise, coaching is a great tool to explore together with the client what is going on emotionally and what are they telling themselves. Exploring it with the client helps the client find solutions.

However, I’ve also noticed that changing the diet in itself to a more nutritious one with plenty of vegetables and more fish, and removing the processed foods,  helps my clients feel better in themselves. This then means fewer feelings of boredom, unhappiness, stressed emotion. It means the rewards do not always have to be food-related and sugar-laden.

Motivational Reasons

Lack of accountability or support. Not the “right” goal, a “should” goal rather than what you really want or need. An unrealistic goal. A goal that is not in line with your core values, for example, your family is important but you set yourself a goal of exercising in a gym and eating meals that are completely different to your family.

You are not really enjoying your goal. It’s not exciting enough – losing weight doesn’t excite your brain, but fitting into that beautiful dress again would. Have you a reward planned when you reach your goal?

Are you actually committed? Being motivated is one thing, but it’s an emotion that can drive you, but also quickly disappear. Commitment is what you need to really stick to a plan. Ask yourself are you really committed?


Writing down your goals, journaling, getting support and an accountability buddy. A huge part of me working with clients is the support I’m giving them. I’m not just handing out a nutrition plan, I actually help people to gain the confidence to stick to a plan.

Find someone who is supporting you or an accountability buddy. It doesn’t always need to be a professional, it can be a friend or family member, but make sure that he or she is honest with you and will actually hold you accountable for.


Meal planning, no time, not organised, not enough knowledge of cooking/recipes, not the necessary equipment, lack of resources.


Learn how to plan. Talk to someone. Make health your priority. Mindset: I have no time. A structured diet plan can be a good starting point that can help you get into the planning, however, it is important that you see it as a starting point, rather than being “on” or “off” a diet. You are creating new habits and this becomes easier the more often you do it.


This can be the people around you. You’re invited to a friend’s house or your parents and you can’t say no. It can be the restaurant you go to that  doesn’t have a good choice. It can be pressure from the people around you who say “a go on, you can afford it”. It can be that you can’t get the rest of your family on board and they insist on having unhealthy foods in the house.


  1. Step 1 is to become aware of these environmental factors
  2. Where can you change? Who can you talk to?
  3. Can you lead by example? Are others jealous?


These are things we simply do out of habit. Going to the beach means having an ice cream. Birthday parties mean having a cake. Certain days mean having alcohol. Christmas means boxes of Quality Street or other chocolates. What routines do you have that you don’t want to break?

Maybe at home, you were told you have to empty your plate? Do you associate having alcohol with a wind-down at the weekend? Are you rewarding yourself with food after exercise?


  1. Recognising that these are habits.
  2. Asking yourself are these habits serving me in the long run.
  3. By following a specific plan can help break habits.
  4. Habits can be changed!

So, the next time you eat something, ask yourself “Am I really hungry?” or “Why am I actually eating right now?”

Once you have identified your reason for eating, explore further how you can tackle it. Which of the suggested solutions could you apply? If you like to have more help with this process, why not book in a Health & Energy Review with me?

You can also still take part in the 5-Day Mindful Eating Challenge, which explores not only the WHY but also the HOW we eat. Mindful eating is one of the most underrated tools to help you ditch sugar cravings, avoid over-eating and reduce digestive issues. Once you subscribe to this free challenge, you will receive 5 emails in the following 5 days with mindful eating prompts and a short video. I’ve heard really good reviews on how these 5-days have helped my clients get back on track to healthier eating habits.

Looking at the HOW and WHY we eat, is also part of any of my programmes, whether you work with me in a group or one-to-one setting. I don’t just give nutritional advice, I also support you and give you the confidence to implement the recommendations.

During my retreat in October, we will have some games and fun around this topic as well to get you into the frame of mind to be open for creating new habits.


Mulled wine

This delicious mulled wine is sweetened naturally with a little cider and the juice of an orange.

If not sweet enough just add some xylitol.


2 bottles of fruity red wine
150ml apple cider
1 cinnamon stick
Juice of one orange
The peel of one unwaxed lemon
5 whole cloves, stuck in an unwaxed orange
A pinch of nutmeg
5 cardamom pods (optional)
I tbsp of xylitol (optional)


Simmer all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let the wine rest for an additional 10 minutes before straining and serving.

Healthy Mince Pies

Ingredients for the filling:

1 large apple
75g raisins
75g sultanas
75g currants
65g dried, ideally unsweetened cranberries
60g other dried fruit (sour cherries,
blueberries, mango, apricots
– dried but unsweetened)
Zest and juice of an orange
50g coconut palm sugar
4 tbsp butter, cubed
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp brandy (optional)

Ingredients for the pastry:

150g of almond flour or ground almonds
75g of coconut flour
1 tbsp coconut palm sugar
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
zest of an orange
115g butter, frozen
(plus a little extra for greasing)
1 egg, lightly whisked


Pre-heat the oven to 175˚C, then put the almond and coconut flours in a bowl with the sugar, baking soda and salt. Stir in the orange zest. Grate the frozen butter into the flour and mix together with your fingers till a crumb forms.

Stir in the egg and mix with your hands to form a dough. Divide the dough in half; wrap each in film and place in the fridge for 1 hour (or overnight). Grease the moulds of a muffin pan with a little butter.
Remove the dough from the fridge and place between 2 sheets of baking/ greaseproof paper.

Roll with a rolling pin to flatten out the dough until it is pie-crust thin.

To make the filling:
Put all of the filling ingredients (other than the brandy) into a large saucepan over medium heat and stir.

When the butter is fully melted, turn the heat to low, cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often. Take the saucepan off the heat and stir through a tablespoon of brandy, and decant into sterilized glass jars.
Leave to cool with the lid slightly ajar, then secure tightly and store until required.
Using a biscuit cutter (or an upturned jam jar – needs to be about 8cm diameter), cut out 25 circles and lightly press into the muffin pan moulds.

The pastry can be tricky to work with, as there is no gluten holding it together. Be patient. If the pastry
splits just push it back together with your fingers and use any pastry scraps to fix it up.
Fill up each pie mould with a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat. Using the remainder of the dough, cut out 25 stars to top each pie. Bake in the oven for 12 minutes.

Leave to cool in the tins, before gently easing them out. Don’t be tempted to remove from the
tin when they come out of the oven – they WILL fall apart if you do this.

(Recipe from Zest4Life Christmas recipes)

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