The ability to control impulsive eating during stressful times is a challenge. We all experience typical garden-variety upheaval from time to time.  While intellectually we know this is temporary. Life will soon become predictable and comfortable again. But in the meantime, we start observing our own sense of discomfort around the experience of things being “unsettled”.

Eating When You’re Not Hungry

Sasha Loring, a meditation teacher, psychotherapist, and mindful eating expert, is the author of Eating With Fierce Kindness (my all time favorite book on the practice of mindful eating). She identifies three main reasons that drive us to eat, even when we’re not hungry:

1. eating to reward oneself

2. eating to feel pleasure

3. eating to feel relief from discomfort

One thing the practice of mindfulness begins to reveal is that we all have a bundle of reactive habits we turn to when the going gets rough. They may soothe us in the short term (“Aahhh that melt-in-your-mouth chocolate), but over the long-term do us more harm than good.

Mindfulness and Eating

Jean L. Kristeller, PhD , professor of psychology at Indiana State University, and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, explains how the practice of mindfulness builds internal skills that can help us turn off the automatic pilot that drives much of our habitual reactive eating. Kristeller defines  “mindfulness” as a cognitive state marked by attentional stability that disengages habitual reactions and allows for inner wisdom to emerge.” Sound good? It is! By strengthening your mindfulness muscle you learn to pause between the event that triggers a compulsion toward non-hunger eating, and the often instantaneous reaction to that trigger (mindLESS eating).  This skill that can be strengthened through formal and informal (mini) meditation practices.

Some people have an incorrect understanding of what meditation really is, so let’s dispel some common myths: Meditation is neither a trance state, nor is it primarily a relaxation tool. Rather, meditation is an attentional process that promotes self-regulation. It’s the skill of attention that strengthens our ability to skillfully intervene between stimulus and response.  Mindfulness is a state of being awake and alert in the present moment, without judging your experience. It’s the noticing that’s important.

Appetite Awareness

Another skill fortified by mindfulness practice is our capacity for internal awareness – of both physical sensations in the body, and emotions and thoughts in the heart and mind.  We can learn (through practice) to notice and pay attention to physical sensations like hunger and fullness, as well as emotions that may be driving us to eat when we’re not hungry. One really helpful tool that I’ve been working with is the Hunger-Fullness Scale. Developed by Linda Craighead, PhD, a researcher and expert on disregulated eating at Emory University, the Hunger-Fullness Scale is a simple and convenient informal practice for gauging your actual physiological appetite, and strengthening your bodily awareness. Research shows that stronger appetite awareness is connected with improvements in eating and weight control. One tool Craighead developed is the “Hunger-Fullness Scale”.

Very Hungry

Moderately Hungry

Mildly Hungry

No Feeling; Neutral

Mildly Full

Very Full

Much Too Full


2.5  Start Eating

<- Desirable Zone ->


Stop Eating


Credit: Linda Craighead, PhD Emory University

When you get into the healthy habit of mindfully connecting with your body throughout the day, your awareness of how hungry or full you actually are becomes more and more clear. The Hunger-Fullness Scale suggests you eat when you are “Mildly Hungry” (i.e. you rate your internal physical sensations of hunger at between a 2.5 to a 3.0), and that you stop eating when you are “Mildly Full” (i.e. you rate your internal sensations of fullness at approximately a 4.5 to a 5.0). Use of the Hunger-Fullness Scale is a mini-mindfulness practice (a “micro practice”) that anyone can do. And the more you practice, the better you get!

Consider using the Hunger-Fullness Scale in conjunction with a Mindful Eating Mini Meditation before each meal and snack. It only takes a few moments and no one need know you’re doing anything. Check out this 3 minute Mindful Eating Mini Meditation video produced by The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto: