Do you ever find yourself wandering around the kitchen at your office, scavenging for a bag of Kettle chips or a Kind Bar even though you just ate lunch 45 minutes ago? Why am I still hungry?! you cry hopelessly into the ether, your arms outstretched, your stomach thundering.
I find myself doing this more often than I care to admit, and this isn’t the only circumstance under which I become suddenly, inexplicably famished. The other week, I was neck deep in a late-night Netflix black hole, and even though it was 11 p.m. and I’d already eaten a satisfying dinner, all I wanted to do was munch.
All of this unwelcome hunger inspired me to do a bit of digging. Scientifically, what is the root of this haphazard hanger? To find out, I spoke with a group of trusted nutrition experts, who laid out all the reasons people often feel hungry when they shouldn’t.
And we thought there was no downside to binging all of Stranger Things in a single weekend. “Screentime, be it TV or internet, promotes mindless eating,” says registered dietitian Lauren O’Connor of Nutri Savvy Health. We’re especially prone to excess munching during exciting moments (alien chases, monster attacks, that sort of thing). “These stimulate our adrenaline, which can consequently stimulate our hunger,” O’Connor says.
If you’re watching late at night (aka prime Netflix hour), the snack cravings increase. “Missing out on sleep is setting you up for sugar and carb cravings the entire next day,” explains Diane Sanfilippo, certified nutrition consultant and author of Practical Paleo.
To curb these tech-induced food binges, try pausing your show when you feel a hunger pang and stepping away from the screen to eat (instead of setting the bag of pita chips next to you). Give yourself a TV cutoff time, too, adds Sanfilippo. “The shows will be there when you’re ready to come back for more,” she says. “Simply let your friends know not to spoil it for you while you catch some z’s in an effort to keep your healthy choices on track.”
This seems counterintuitive, but one of the most common reasons we consume excess calories is because we’re mistaking thirst for hunger: “Often we eat because we think we’re hungry when in fact we may be dehydrated,” explains Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian at Abbey’s Kitchen. Luckily, the fix is simple. “Before you eat, have a glass of water first to see if that satisfies before grabbing a snack,” Sharp says.
O’Connor reminds us to try drinking water consistently throughout the day, as well. Keeping a cute water bottle by your desk can be helpful. S’well bottles are a Byrdie favorite because they keep beverages cold (and thus more appetizing) for 24 hours. Fill one up with water four times a day and, O’Connor promises, you’ll feel less snacky.
3. Lack of Sleep
“This is a very common culprit for unexplained cravings,” says certified holistic nutritionist Vanessa Packer, founder of ModelFIT and co-founder of BonBeri. If your sleep patterns are irregular, it can mess up your eating patterns and digestion. (Ever notice how stopped up you feel when you’re sleep-deprived?)
Not getting enough sleep also elevates cortisol levels, which stimulates hunger. “We tend to crave sweets and simple carbohydrates to compensate for our feeling of fatigue,” says O’Connor.
So how much shut-eye should we be getting exactly? According to Tricia Griffin, a registered dietitian at Muscle Milk, seven hours a night is the minimum. By making an effort to go to bed just 30 minutes earlier each night (and then slowly increasing that week by week), you may drop your cortisol levels, curb your appetite, and normalize your eating schedule.
4. Low-Fat Foods
Just because a food is marked as “low fat” doesn’t mean it’s healthy, especially if it’s processed. “‘Diet foods tend to be super low in fat and protein and high in refined carbs, which aren’t as satiating as fat and protein, so it’s easy to get ravenous and binge soon after eating them,” says Sharp.
Instead, Sharp suggests aiming for a combination of protein, high-fiber carbs and choosing fat for your meals and snacks. Avocado toast with hummus on whole grain bread is a great option.
5. Sugary Breakfast
Speaking of refined carbohydrates, starting your day off with a sugary breakfast pretty much guarantees excess snacking later. That means cereal, pastries, sugary coffee drinks, granola bars, and even fruit should be off the table.
“The hidden sugars and processed carbs in many breakfast cereals set us up for a blood sugar roller coaster, making you feel hungry even though you’ve just eaten,” says Elizabeth Brown, registered dietitian of The Kitchen Vixen.
Granola bars and fruit aren’t any better, even though they’re marketed to be. “Sure, fruit is a ‘healthy’ breakfast, but it’s metabolized in less than an hour,” says certified nutritionist Dana James. “By the time 11 a.m. rolls around, you’ll find yourself eating breakfast meeting leftovers like stale croissants or energy bars, which are loaded with sneaky sugars that cause a blood sugar drop and mess with your appetite hormones.”
The bottom line: Choose a protein-based breakfast like a veggie omelet or chia seed pudding.
6. Chewing Gum
Ever find your stomach start to grumble as you’re chewing gum? “Your body is hardwired to associate chewing with food coming,” explains Sanfilippo. “This can actually stimulate your appetite when you didn’t mean to, sending you looking for snacks all day long.”
If you’re an avid gum chewer, Sanfilippo suggests satisfying that oral fixation with some sparkling water instead. Add a few pieces of mint and some cucumber slices to spice it up. ‘Not only will this give your body more of what it loves—fresh water—it’ll also keep your breath fresh and your mouth occupied,” she says.
7. Food Pushers
We all know someone like this—that one friend or family member who always convinces you you’re hungrier than you really are and that you need to have another cupcake or slice of pizza.
“If one of your family members or friends tries to convince you to eat more than you’re hungry for, kindly let them know that you’re already full,” Sharp recommends. If they still give you a hard time, perhaps file that away and kindly suggest going on a hike or to the movies next time they ask you to brunch.
We know it sounds odd, but the nostalgic associations we have with food can trick us into overeating. Think of it this way: “When you fell and scraped your knee playing soccer as a kid, did your parents take you out for ice cream?” asks Rachel Berman, registered dietitian and head of content for Verywell. Food-related memories like this may cause you to reach for a treat when you have similar experiences as an adult.
Similarly, eating dessert after every dinner or always ordering an appetizer at restaurants because your family did when you were a kid can also cause you to consume excess calories, says Jenny Champion, registered dietitian and editor at Posh Paleo.
To break these habits, Berman recommends using something other than food as a reward, like treating yourself to a 10-minute massage. What could also work is replacing any nostalgic food indulgences with lower-calorie options, says Champion. For example, instead of ice cream, have some dark chocolate or unsweetened chai tea. This is easier than breaking a deep-seated food habit cold turkey.
Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: from physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. 2015;8(3):143-152. doi:10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
Cleveland Clinic. The 5 worst breakfast foods for you. Updated July 13, 2020.