Emotional Eating / Non Hunger Eating

Emotional Eating/Non-Hunger Eating: Ways to Cope 

By Heather Mackie MS, RD, LD

Many bariatric patients struggle with emotional eating or what some call “mindless eating.” You can call it whatever you want, but the behavior involves eating when you’re not physically hungry. Immediately following surgery (for many weight loss surgery patients), your surgery prevents this type of behavior by making you sick. But as we all know, long-term success is key. So how do we work to change this behavior and what are some coping mechanisms to assist us in changing this behavior?

There are several places to start, but let’s start by exploring these three methods that have been used with patients in the clinic. These methods include using a hunger-fullness scale, a list of non-food related activities, and an index card. Not all methods will work for all patients and this is why it’s so important to stay in touch with your support group, dietitian, psychologist, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, etc. In fact, you may have something that has worked for you that you should share with others in order to help them!

Hunger-Fullness Scale.  This is a scale that measures your feeling of satiety.  Satiety is the feeling of fullness.  It’s a subjective scale; there’s no right or wrong here.  It’s something different than counting calories.  This will help you to learn intuitive eating; where you eat when you know you need to eat and don’t overeat.  Think about babies.  Babies know when they’re hungry – they cry.  And they know when they’re full – they quit eating.  But somewhere along the line we lose that intuition and other things replace it.  This is not the easiest thing to do and it does take practice.  But with continued practice and effort it will become easier and you’ll be more aware of your body’s signals of hunger and fullness.

Start by asking yourself: “Am I really hungry?”  Try to tune into this physical sensation before you allow the emotions to take over.  Think about some food that you aren’t a huge fan of but will eat if you were hungry enough.  For example; some people might not care for oranges.  They might look really good but it may be a food that you never really cared for or ever been a food you’ve craved.  If you start to feel like you want to graze or look through the cabinets, try to ask yourself, “Am I hungry enough to eat an orange?”  If so then you’re probably truly hungry.  If not, then it’s probably something else, such as, emotions, stress, boredom, etc.  

Where do you fit on the scale?  The scale is a 1-10 scale with 1 being ravenous and 10 being “thanksgiving-full!”  The goal is to stay between 3 and 6.  It’s not recommended to wait until a 1 to eat.  Try to have healthy snacks around to prevent that.  Because often if we wait to eat until we feel like a 1, we will eat too fast (due to being ravenous) and then eat too much.  Try to stop eating at a 5 and remember to eat slowly.  Remember – it takes your brain about 20 minutes to realize how full your stomach is.  So if you stop at a 5, you will most likely end up feeling like a 6 or so about 20 minutes later.  If you’re eating a fair amount of protein with your meals (~ 15-25 grams per meal for most patients) you will feel full for 3-4 hours.   

Very Hungry

Moderately Hungry

Mild Hunger


Comfortably Full

Very Full

Much Too Full (Uncomfortable)









Desirable Zone


1. Very hungry – starving, desperate Stomach screaming

2. Moderately hungry – ready to eat Stomach talking

3. Mildly hungry – beginning hunger Stomach whispering

4-5. Neutral -- No sensations

6. Comfortably -- full Satisfied

8. Full -- Beginning distention

10. Much too full -- Stuffed

Taste satiety – the feeling of fullness.  Sometimes you might find yourself hungry, but you might still crave a particular taste, such as something sweet or salty.  You may also desire a different texture – chewy, crunchy, and creamy.  It’s important to plan these different tastes and textures into your menu and eat moderate portions in a mindful way.  It’s also important that you become more aware of foods that are satisfying and those that aren’t.  Try not to fill up on unsatisfying foods because you will just end up eating more calories trying to find that satisfaction.

Eat SLOWLY!  Remember to put the fork down between bites.  Really spend some time chewing and tasting the food.  Check your hunger/fullness level regularly throughout the meal.  

Below is a journal to track your hunger/fullness and get you started on your way to being mindful when you eat. 

INSTRUCTIONS:  Write down your hunger/fullness number when you start eating.  Then record the number when you stop eating and then again 20-30 minutes after you stop eating.  Do you notice a trend?  Are you overeating? Or are you just right?

Hunger/Fullness Scale and the Feeling of Satiety


Starting Meal Hunger Number

Stopping Meal Hunger Number

20-30 Minutes after Stopping Meal Hunger Number



Meal 1




Meal 2




Meal 3




Snack *




Snack *





* = Optional - you don’t have to eat snacks – these sections are there if you do eat snacks.  If you have questions regarding whether or not you should consume snacks please meet with your dietitian.

Journal: This is where you can write some emotions/stress/feelings that you were experiencing this day/eating time that might better assist you and your medical team with determining what’s triggering your eating habits.