Life is full of daily little mysteries: Where have all the bobby pins gone? Is happiness just chemicals circulating through our bodies? Am I hungry or just bored? While we can’t answer the first two, we do have some clarity on boredom eating, thanks to the help of registered dietician nutritionist Rachel Swanson, MS, RD, LDN, founder of Diet Doctors, LLC.
Food—particularly hyperpalatable food—is a common coping mechanism for a variety of situations, boredom included. But typically, those hyperpalatable foods don’t offer much nutritional value. What they do offer, however, is dopamine, a feel-good chemical in our brains. And guess what our brains are low on when we’re bored? Yep, dopamine.
“Boredom eating starts out very benign—perhaps even undetectable,” Swanson says. “You might turn to food to soothe a particular emotion or to fill a void. It tastes good, so it makes you feel better. The next time a similar circumstance arises, the process repeats itself and eventually becomes a positively reinforced cycle.” It becomes a strategy—often unintentional—we use to cope.
The difference between physical hunger and psychological hunger
“Physical hunger will resolve after eating a balanced, nutritious meal,” Swanson says. “Psychological hunger is not resolved after eating a balanced, nutritious meal. In fact, it’s common to seek out more food/snacks despite already eating.” That’s why boredom hunger feels insatiable.
“That bag of perfectly sweet-and-salty popcorn is a conduit for making us feel great in that moment; it provides a dose of pleasure, even if short-lived,” Swanson says. Or, as the authors of this study put it, “Unhealthy behavior may draw attention away from the threatening, self-focused, existential experience that boredom entails.” Sounds about right.
Swanson says that the first step is separating boredom and food intake. “These two things do not have to exist at the same moment in time,” she says. So basically, identify when we’re eating out of boredom. (We know, easier said than done.)
A good place to start is to ask ourselves if we’d complain about eating a meal of healthy—but maybe not that exciting—foods. Swanson gives salmon and broccoli as an example, but ofc that can be tweaked for each of us individually. When we can ID boredom eating, we definitely have the ability to ID what we really want or need, Swanson says.
That means working to change our coping mechanisms. “Effective solutions are those which are deliberately tied to your brain’s reward pathways, in order to guarantee positive reinforcement,” Swanson says. “Think: the feeling you get when you’re talking to your best friend on the phone. Or right after you complete a workout. Or simply being engrossed in learning something new … Keep in mind the solution isn’t just to ‘stop’ eating out of boredom. That rarely works since sooner or later, willpower diminishes,” she says.
Again, this is all very much easier said than done—so we need to remember to be kind to ourselves. “You didn’t get into this habit overnight, so let’s not expect to break out of it overnight,” Swanson says. “You can undoubtedly change your coping mechanisms with a little mental fortitude combined with repetition of practicing new behaviors whenever you feel triggered. Eventually, you will no longer have to fight the urge of boredom eating. The urge becomes weaker to the point where you may notice it but will no longer have the desire to act on it.”