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HELP! Why do I eat when i'm bored?

Updated: May 7, 2022

Ever felt slightly bored and all of a sudden you get a hunger pang, … make your way to your kitchen and start feasting away on a food source that is likely to be high in sugar, salt and or fat? Yes, us too! This is what is known as boredom eating but don’t worry, its likely you are not alone.

Eating when you’re bored is a major player in emotional eating and is one of the most common triggers of emotional eating which may also lead to binge eating. [1]. Boredom eating is an urgent and overwhelming feeling that often kicks in a craving for a certain type of food.

When you are physically hungry (hunger from your stomach) you usually don’t crave a particular food, rather a wide range of products could satisfy you. While physical hunger can be satisfied by having a small amount of food and moving on. Emotional eating doesn’t quiet ‘hit the spot’ and cause satisfaction. As opposed to feeling hunger from your stomach, emotional hunger triggers your brain to open the cookie jar, and munch away- often with a lack of awareness. This leads to over eating, not knowing why we ate it, and sometimes we don’t even remember what we ate in the first place.

Studies have shown that boredom is a very common reason to eat. It has found that people who are often bored eat more food in general, have an increased desire to eat less healthy snacks after or during a meaningless task. [2]

So why do we eat when we are bored?

When one is bored, situations receive low attention due to lack of interest or stimulation coming from one’s immediate environment[3]. The excitement or stimulation of certain foods may help to distract people’s attention from the bored self. So to put it in simple terms, food basically distracts us from whatever boring (meaningless) situation we are in. [4]

Eating food influences levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes us feel reward). It has been found that specific foods may contribute to an increase in dopamine levels. These foods are often high in sugar, fat and salt. What happens when you consume your favourite chocolate? You release endorphins – this is your feel good hormone which keeps us coming back for more.

Eating when we are bored often serves as a coping mechanism, to escape the emotions you are feeling. When we snack, it breaks up our boredom by releasing dopamine… very much the same reason we grab our phones and scroll through social media. Temporary hits of satisfaction with no real long term reward.

How do we know the different between emotional hunger and true (physical) hunger?

One quick way to tell the difference between emotionally driven ‘hunger’ and true physical hunger, is to see where in your body you feel hungry. True physical hunger should be felt in the stomach. If you “feel” hunger in the chest, throat or mouth, what you may be feeling is emotional hunger instead. A lack of physical hunger signals means you may want to eat for emotional reasons.

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and creates a craving for a specific food whereas physical hunger gradually builds up. Emotional eating doesn’t lead to satisfaction right away, where physical hunger can be satisfied through some mouthfuls. However it is important to remember that is takes +-20 minutes for the signal from your stomach to reach our brain to let it know we are full.

Difficulty stopping at ‘comfortable fullness’

If you are chronically unable to stop eating at comfortable fullness, even though you recognise when you are full, then you are most likely overeating for emotional reasons. Just because something tastes good doesn’t mean you have to finish it! Challenge yourself to always stop half way through your meal and take it slowly. It’s okay to not polish your plate.

What can be done to break the boredom eating cycle?

  • Recognise when you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry .Taking ten seconds out of your day to ask yourself if you are physically hungry is a good starting point. If you think about a range of foods and are happy to eat any of them (like vegetables) then most likely you are experiencing true hunger. However, if you’re craving something specific and only eating that specific food will treat the hunger pains you’re feeling, then you’re most likely wanting to eat for reasons other than true hunger.

  • Make sure your main meals contain enough protein and fiber. Protein promotes satiety whilst fiber controls blood sugar levels. This will ensure you have no sugar crashes and remain as full as possible for the longest possible time.

  • Become more aware of your relationship with food. Pay attention and start to self-monitor: Look for patterns (triggers, situations, responses). Notice what, how, and why you are eating. Use the information gathered to increase awareness. Bring the setting and your habitual response into conscious thought (there’s a choice to be made).

  • Insert a pause before eating: check in with yourself: Is my hunger physiological or psychological/head hunger?

  • Distinguish emotions, feelings, and cravings from hunger. Manage emotions and situations (boredom, stress, reward, feeling down, etc.) using non-food coping techniques and limit eating to planned meals and snacks (and when physiologically hungry).

  • Find a different distraction. Engage in a pleasurable activity (other than eating and TV) for at least 15-20 minutes. The likelihood if that your cravings will become more tolerable or you will forget about them.

  • Eat regular meals and snacks (planned eating) and limit eating in between (unplanned eating). Also, don’t let yourself get too hungry. Pay attention to hunger signals and eat before you get to the starving stage.

  • Learn to tolerate cravings. This will get easier over time. “Surf the crave wave.”

It is so important to get a dietary assessment done by a Registered Dietitian to ensure that you are meeting all your nutrient and energy requirements. At Nutrition and Co, we have created the perfect solution to manage boredom eating, achieve body composition goals and thrive instead of just surviving! Our LifeSculpt Nutrition and Fitness Program is UK's most support weight management program focusing on ALL aspects of health and wellbeing.

Book with us today.

References [1] Crockett AC, Myhre SK, Rokke PD. Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating. J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):670-80. doi: 10.1177/1359105315573439. PMID: 25903253. [2] Moynihan AB, van Tilburg WA, Igou ER, Wisman A, Donnelly AE, Mulcaire JB. Eaten up by boredom: consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self. Front Psychol. 2015 Apr 1;6:369. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00369. PMID: 25883579; PMCID: PMC4381486. [3] Sansone, C., Weir, C., Harpster, L., and Morgan, C. (1992). Once a boring task always a boring task? Interest as a self-regulatory strategy. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 63, 379–390. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.63.3.379 [4] Havermans RC, Vancleef L, Kalamatianos A, Nederkoorn C. Eating and inflicting pain out of boredom. Appetite. 2015 Feb;85:52-7. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.11.007. Epub 2014 Nov 11. PMID: 25447018.

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