Why We Eat When We’re Bored

Bearded man with headphones on with a laptop and a slice of pizza
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For the past couple years I’ve been working on being more mindful of my eating habits. I’ve been paying more attention to which foods I pick and when I choose to eat. I’ve found that while I do eat to satisfy physical hunger most of the time, there are a number of other situations that can result in food for me.

Stress, frustration and lack of sleep are a couple I’ve noticed, although sometimes I find myself skipping meals during these times as well. When I’m feeling celebratory I may reach for a beer or want to go out to eat, but I could also just as easily go climbing or experiment with cooking a new healthy meal.

With boredom though, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I always need to eat! If I’m bored during work, I’ll wander over to the vending machines and buy something salty, and if I’m sitting at home with nothing to do, I’ll search the kitchen for something sweet.

And it seems I’m not alone in this. Most people I’ve talked to say that boredom is big trigger for them wanting to eat.Our brains have somehow decided that the best way to relieve boredom is to find something to eat! However, there are three obvious problems with this approach:

  1. In most of these situations our bodies don’t actually need any food. This means we’re getting more calories than we really need and most likely messing up our appetite for our next meal
  2. Most of us never, ever, ever choose to eat vegetables when we’re bored. Instead, we always choose salty snacks or desserts that have barely any nutritional value. So not only are we getting extra calories, those calories are providing us with additional salt or sugar that we most likely don’t need.
  3. Now, I can’t speak for others, but I have noticed that if I eat when I’m bored, I rarely feel satisfied when I’m done.

So why does this happen? How do our brains decide that food is the best option for dealing with boredom?

In one word, dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s strongly tied with feelings of reward and pleasure. Our levels can drop when our brains aren’t being stimulated, such as when we’re bored. This triggers us to take an action that will bring us pleasure, which brings our levels back up.

Eating is one way to raise our levels of dopamine, and as Dr. Susan Carnell writes, “our dopamine system evolved with the very purpose of making adaptive things like eating feel rewarding, so that we wouldn’t forget to do them and die”.

Of course there are other ways to spike dopamine levels — drugs, cigarettes and sex to name a few — but for some of us, food does the trick just fine.

But that’s not all. Yes, dopamine plays a role in all this, but there’s more that goes into making our bored-eating tendencies a full-blown habit.

As we know, boredom causes us to participate in behaviors that result in pleasure. However, if we constantly use one particular behavior, our brain becomes less able to experience pleasure from anything else. So if we always rely on food to relieve boredom, our brain becomes re-wired to derive the most pleasure from eating.

That means our brain will crave eating over other activities because that’s how it experiences the most pleasure. And the more we eat when we’re bored, the more this will become reinforced to our brain. And the more it’s reinforced, the more we turn to eating when bored. And the more we turn to eating … This cycle goes on and on until it’s a fully ingrained habit!

Now fortunately, if this is where you find yourself, you’re not stuck with this habit for life. There are a few steps you can take to break out of this never-ending cycle:

1. Notice when you’re eating due to boredom.

Sounds easy enough, right? Firstly, become familiar with the times and situations you’re most likely to experience boredom, and then notice if and when you turn to food for relief.

Is it during the day or late at night? While you’re at work or when you’re in the car? Become familiar with your emotional states throughout the day, and what your knee-jerk reactions are to them. Keeping a journal or log of what you discover may be helpful — it can aid you in searching for behavioral patterns and trends.

2. Brainstorm other ways to address boredom.

Come up with a list of all the activities you do that bring you pleasure. Are there any physical activities you enjoy or sports that you like playing? What hobbies or pastimes put a smile on your face? Think about how you could incorporate those activities when you’re feeling bored, and make a plan for when you’ll use them.

And if your list of activities is looking a little paltry, it may be time to branch out and try new things. Experiment with different activities until you find a few that you enjoy. Learn how to knit or take up painting. Sign up for some dance classes or become a dog walker. Ask your friends what they like to do and try it out for yourself.

And if after all these new activities eating still tops your list, have no fear. Remember that the more you use an activity, the more it’ll become connected to your brain’s reward center. So the more you do them, the more enjoyable they’ll become.

3. Embrace boredom.

Now, this one may be more challenging since our lifestyles are pretty much set up to avoid it. Most of us have more to do in a day than can realistically fit, and we carry around a portable computer in our pockets that can provide entertainment at all times.

Gone are the days of feeling bored while waiting for an appointment, or for our car to get fixed, or even for an elevator. Now we can pull up Instagram or Twitter at any time and be instantly entertained!

If we eat when we’re bored, we’re doing the same thing. We’re using food to distract ourselves from boredom, instead of eating because we’re actually hungry.

The first step to breaking this habit is to start ignoring the impulse to reach for food whenever we experience boredom. This will disrupt the neurological connection we’ve made between food and pleasure.

We also have to start ignoring the impulse to do anything when we’re bored — watch TV, scroll through Facebook, smoke a cigarette, etc. Ultimately, the more comfortable we are with being bored, the less likely we’ll need food (or anything else) to distract us from it.Why We Eat When We're Bored -

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Christine Stirparo
Christine Stirparo, RDN, CD, is a personal nutrition coach and founder of Master Your Nutrition LLC. She blogs about creating positive, permanent changes in health habits and behaviors at MasterYourNutrition.com. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.