9 Feelings You Don’t Realize You Mistake for Hunger

Don’t reach for the cookie jar before diagnosing what’s really going on.

Tiredness

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Ever notice how hunger strikes during your midafternoon slump or right before bed? “Feeling sleepy can create the urge to eat something to boost energy and stay awake,” says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. “It kicks the digestive system into having a job and keeping awake.” The best solution is to take a nap or get to bed early if you can. But if you’re at work or out of the house, perk yourself up by taking a lap around the office or chatting with a coworker for a few minutes, she says. Avoid these eating habits that ruin your sleep.

Stress

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When you’re stressed, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline pump through your body, leading to high blood sugar levels and more hunger signals. This isn’t a huge deal if it’s a one-time event, but constantly overeating because of chronic stress is bad news. “Many of us are working nonstop and not getting enough sleep or taking care of our bodies, and our bodies are in a constant state of stress,” says Angel Planells, MS, RDN, CD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson. “Overeating today or overeating tomorrow is not a big deal, but after weeks, months, or years, you’ll start to see weight gain.” These are other signs stress is making you sick.

Thirst

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The body’s thirst signal is similar to the hunger signal, meaning you could reach for a snack when you should be reaching for a drink. “Try drinking one or two cups of water, flavored water, or tea,” Armul says. “If you’re still hungry five minutes later, it’s probably actual hunger.” To keep those confusing signals away, stay hydrated throughout the day by carrying a water bottle with you, she suggests. These are the surprising reasons you're always thirsty.

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Sadness

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When you’re feeling upset, you might turn to decadent food to comfort you. In fact, 62 percent of Americans eat to satisfy a craving rather than to fuel up, according to a 2015 survey by marketing intelligence agency Mintel. “When we eat for emotional purposes, we’re trying to temporarily fill a void, but ultimately we’ll feel satisfied while we’re eating, but after we eat, the feeling will still be there,” Planells says. “Then we feel guilty and wish we had more willpower afterward.” Mindfulness can help combat emotional eating, Armul says. Taking deep breaths, eating at a slower pace, and paying closer attention to feelings of fullness can help you from continuing past satisfaction just because it tastes good. Here are more quick tricks to stop emotional eating.

Routine

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“If you know you always eat ice cream on the couch or eat pizza at this friend’s house, those routines get very ingrained,” Armul says. If your noshing is nothing more than a habit, break the association with a physical change to your routine. For instance, if you always snack while watching TV, move to a different chair than usual, Armul says. She also recommends stocking up on healthy snack options to replace your go-to mindless munchies. Replace your usual bowl of ice cream with frozen fruit, a low-calorie ice pop, or Greek yogurt so you can keep snacking without the guilt. Check out these weird ways your body reacts to a binge.

Awareness of food

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You might not have been thinking about sweets before, but now that you’ve kept passing the box of cookies on your counter, it’s all you can think about. “Just seeing food can increase the release of dopamine, which drives the reward and pleasure center in the brain—and hunger,” Armul says. “Sometimes it’s just out of thought, out of mind, but if it’s right in front of you all day, it tends to wear down your willpower.” If you keep junk food in the house, make sure it’s behind closed doors so you don’t have that visual temptation. Here are more kitchen setup ideas to effortlessly encourage healthy eating.

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Medication side effects

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Certain medications such as hormones or those for psychiatric purposes or seizures could increase your appetite, Planells says. If you’ve gained weight after starting a new prescription, you might want to talk to your doctor. These are other surprising causes of weight gain you might not realize.

Hormonal changes

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“There’s a reason behind that cliché of it’s that time of the month and women reach for certain foods,” Armul says. “It comes back to hormones. Certain ones are surging, and hormones do impact our hunger levels very directly.” If you have a regular period, try to plan in advance to prepare for those cravings. Stock up on healthy foods instead of making it your baking weekend, and try to fit in more physical activity and sleep, she says. Don't miss these things your period secretly wants to tell you.

Nostalgia

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Remaking a childhood recipe from when you visited your grandparents could drive you to overeat. “One powerful reason people eat is for nostalgia,” Planells says. “Nostalgia is a beautifully complicated emotion. You could feel happy and joyful but sad and regretful.” Feel free to indulge in that fried chicken or cola cake every now and then, just don’t go overboard.

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