Out of all the reasons we eat, boredom has to be one of the least helpful. Eating because we skipped breakfast and are starving? Makes sense. Eating because we just whipped up a delicious snack and can’t resist trying it a couple of times? Oh, sure.
But eating out of boredom, is kind of pointless, meaningless. It almost always happens when we’re not really in need of food and we don’t even really enjoy it either. Eating out of boredom only happens because we don’t want to do something more useful at that moment.
Many things can cause us to feel bored, like standing in line or getting stuck in traffic. Also, certain jobs where we have to perform repetitive tasks and don’t interact with peers may also leave us feeling bored and unfulfilled.
Generally speaking, we find situations that are time-based more boring than situations that are effort-based, as well as situations with uncertain rewards or little feedback.
Furthermore, we tend to be more satisfied when we are challenged but still able to complete a task. Being stuck or having to wait somewhere, without it being our fault or having the chance to escape, is the worst situation to find yourself in.
One of the factors we can blame here is dopamine, a little chemical messenger that’s crucial to the experience of motivation and drive. Whatever it is we’re obsessing over, it’s always the dopamine neurons that are firing around, making us feel all fuzzy.
But what does this have to do with eating? When we’re in this state of boredom and want to eat, what we’re really doing is trying to feel excited again and having some kind of stimulation going on. After all, our dopamine system evolved with the very purpose of making adaptive things like eating feel more rewarding, so that we wouldn’t forget to do them and just diet.
You can probably relate to this feeling of being happiest during a typical day while you’re eating. This does have its purpose, and eating should be a pleasurable experience, but when we start grabbing a snack every time we sit down and don’t feel like doing anything, it can become a problem.
4 Steps to Stop Boredom Eating
We all work a bit differently but you'll probably recognize one or more of the following patterns when it comes to your own unhelpful eating habits.
1. Look for emotional triggers
This might be the single most common reason why people eat out of boredom. Like stated above, we sometimes lack a feeling of excitement, purpose, or even connection. We either have a hard time paying attention to internal information (thoughts, feelings) or external information (what’s going on around us).
The first part of solving this is actually being with the situation and recognizing how boredom feels, the dissatisfaction that comes when we can’t engage with ourselves or our environment. Either way, it means having a hard time and the goal here is to make things more satisfying.
It’s possible that we sometimes confuse boredom with stress, which is another form of disconnection from our environment. This means feeling irritated or even nervous – either way, it can cause problems for our attention span, making things less pleasurable for us.
This tense feeling needs to be released somehow by getting some form of dopamine rush. Since there’s an emotional reason for boredom, and not so much physical hunger (because you would know what to do then and get going), eating something is not the answer.
Contrary to popular belief, chocolate or cake cannot really make you feel less lonely, anxious, or frustrated – all it does is giving you a short rush, leaving you in the same old situation you’ve been before. The key is to address your needs beyond food.
One way would be to connect with friends to feel stimulated or engaged with your environment, be it in person or via internet, text messages, or phone calls. Go with what’s really going on - if you’re exhausted, take a nap. If you’re angry, go for a walk or talk with someone. If you’re lonely, get out and meet people.
Also, be sure you don’t forbid yourself to eat certain foods, making it really hard to resist them. We only have so much willpower, and sooner or later we will crash and just want to break free from all of our rules.
2. Recognize and change habits
Human beings are habitual creatures. This can be used to both our advantage and disadvantage. Either way, the first step is to recognize our habits so we can stop living our lives on autopilot.
One way to do this is by pausing every time you want to start eating and ask yourself if you’re really hungry. Check for cues such as rumbling stomach, feeling dizzy or even weak. If you fall into that category, great! If not, go back to step 1 and check for emotional triggers.
Another easy way to stop snacking on foods that are not good for you is to simply not buy them, meaning not having them lying around somewhere in order for you to find and munch on them.
When you’re out and about, pack some snacks so you aren’t tempted by vending machines. Also, put the snacks out of your sight, even having to get up and leaving the room will decrease the likelihood of you snacking.
Read More: 10 Healthy Snacks you can Take Anywhere
You can also look for bodily signs of boredom like posture and head pose leaning back, feeling sleepy, pacing around, or drumming with the fingers. All of these should tell you it’s time to do something fun, productive, fulfilling – apart from grazing around.
Ask yourself whether you are procrastinating, maybe even out of fear you won’t be successful, and using food as a way to distract yourself and be busy.
The best way of evaluating your behavior and patterns is by keeping a food diary and writing down everything you eat - portions, time, and situation. This can be a great tool in helping to review your actions, to see if you’re eating because you’re stressed or as a coping mechanism.
Especially look out for triggers such as watching TV (which feels wrong without popcorn) or having to eat the full box of doughnuts once you opened it anyways.
3. Make sure you eat enough
This is especially important if you are eating a primarily whole food plant-based diet. The calorie density of foods like vegetables, fruits, and starches, is pretty low and you need to get used to bigger portions in order to meet your caloric needs for the day.
A good way of evaluating the situation is by plugging what you’re eating into tools like cronometer.com and check to see if you’ve hit at least 1800-2400 calories (depending on your weight, height, gender, and activity). If you’re not getting enough food throughout the day, you feel the constant need for snacking.
As a second step, make sure to drink enough water. It’s easy to confuse hunger with thirst, so get this possibility out of the way by drinking around 2 liters of water daily.
Also, slowing down while eating gives your brain the time to tell your body that you’ve had enough food. This may take around 20 minutes. Plus, if you savor your food, you feel a lot more satisfied!
Especially during stressful times, we sometimes forget to eat regularly and start skipping meals. This can be a huge downfall because it leads us right down the road of cravings and wanting to stuff our faces with high calorie food later in the day, making it almost impossible to resist (thanks, Reptilian Brain!).
So in order to eat way before you’re feeling famished and your blood sugar is so low you would eat just about anything, try to chart your hunger on a scale from 1 to 10 and check in with yourself every 2-3 hours.
When hunger is starting to get above 6 or 7, then eat something – preferably filling foods like fruits, veggies, beans or whole grains. They are rich in fiber, carbohydrates, micronutrients, and water – all of which will keep you satisfied and energetic for a long time.
Read More: Quick & Simple Recipe Blueprints
4. Step into your passion
Finally, we should start looking into why we’re bored in the first place. Maybe we have jobs that are unfulfilling and require us to perform very simple tasks.
Especially if you dread going to work every day or find yourself constantly lacking motivation in your free time, it’s time to start looking for your true passions – maybe even trying to turn them into a job.
If you don’t know where to start, just go into a bookstore and see where you intentionally go first. The gardening section? Travelling? Photography?
All of these are signs that you’re very interested in a specific topic. It can also be something that really gets to you, like social issues, injustice, or poverty. Being outraged is a huge sign for passion.
Start doing a lot of research on the topic that’s really interesting to you and practice whatever it is regularly. This will get you into a certain flow, like you’re losing track of the world and time by fully emerging yourself into something that you love.
It doesn’t have to be a huge topic either – by simply doing something creative like brainstorming, problem solving, or puzzles, you shift your focus to something meaningful and captivating. These can also be activities that occupy your hands, like knitting, playing an instrument, or painting.
For a quick and fun activity, get out and walk through nature, try some exercising to release endorphins (the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals), dance around, or participate in a team sport.
All of these things will teach you that there are many more exciting and fulfilling things than eating some food!
Have you been struggling with boredom eating? Do you know what the cause is and what are your strategies to deal with this issue? Let us know in the comments below.
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.