Boredom eating (how to stop eating when bored)

Does boredom make you want to eat? Many people wonder how to stop craving food when boredom strikes. You may find yourself snacking while bored, or worry that boredom increases your tendency to overeat. Some even wonder whether ‘boredom eating’ is a type of disorder, or fear that lack of distraction can increase vulnerability to weight gain. Some individuals type into Google, ‘Am I hungry or bored?’ – the implication being that ‘boredom hunger’ is different from hunger experienced at other times.

How to stop eating when bored? The key to answering this question is to realise that boredom does not cause overeating. By perpetuating the notion that boredom plays a role in overeating, you remain distracted and hindered from addressing the real culprit, which is incredibly advantageous to food manufacturers, and incredibly disadvantageous to you.

Instead of wondering what to do instead of eating when bored, a far more useful question to ask is: why do I eat when I’m bored? In fact, why does overeating occur at all?

Only once the root cause of overeating is understood can this behavior permanently cease.

Boredom ensures that an excessive hunger can no longer hide

On this website and within my upcoming book, I explain how and why overeating is caused by addiction to deceptive foods. Consuming these misleading items causes hunger and appetite to rise, and introduces a series of misperceptions about the situation, and, as a consequence, food cravings increase.

Of course people do eat while bored, but this is because, while bored, it is harder to distract oneself from an elevated appetite. Fixing boredom, without curing the increased appetite, is a temporary solution at best. It delays rather than remedies the problem. On the other hand, if an elevated appetite is reset to normal, whether you are bored or not becomes irrelevant.

The following chapter about ‘boredom eating’ is from my upcoming book, Foods that Lie, which outlines exactly how and why deceptive foods cause addiction: escalating hunger and reducing flavor sensitivity. To be alerted when this book is published, please make sure you have subscribed to the mailing list below.

Boredom does not cause overeating

Many people believe that boredom drives overeating. It has even been suggested that there is such a thing as ‘boredom hunger,’ as differentiated from ‘genuine hunger.’ Boredom is the restless state that arises when you do not have any obvious survival need to address. During periods of boredom, we scan the environment, sifting through priorities, and attempting to decipher precisely what to do. Some believe that eating provides a distraction from this unpleasant state, just as some smokers believe that cigarettes offer an activity to keep their hands busy.

It is true that people sometimes eat while bored. One study found that people were more likely to overeat in a bored state than in any other. Another study gave participants a boring and interesting task, along with access to Wheat Thin crackers. Both obese and normal-weight participants consumed more crackers during the boring task.

However, it is critical to note that although eating while bored can and does occur, boredom is never the proximal cause of the eating. To understand this, consider another bodily urge: the urge to visit the bathroom. While engaged in work tasks, you may ignore the pressure gradually building upon your bladder. But as soon as you have downtime, you are much more likely to visit the bathroom than you were a moment prior. Although boredom coincides with the bathroom visit, the ultimate cause of the bathroom trip is the increasing pressure upon the bladder. You can temporarily ignore bladder sensations until a more convenient time, just as you can choose to ignore hunger or food cravings until you have a spare moment. But, while bored, unattended bodily signals are far more likely to be ‘heard’ and acted upon. At these times, nothing distracts you from the nagging internal sensations prompting you to eat. In short, boredom ensures that hunger and food cravings can no longer hide.

Addressing boredom delays rather than remedies the problem

Imagine a toddler who is cranky and hungry. Reading a story or doing a silly dance may temporarily pacify the child, but once the distraction is over, the whinging, irritable behavior returns. The optimal solution is not to generate an endless stream of entertaining activities to occupy the child but to feed them the nutrition that they need. The moment hunger abates, the toddler changes from fussy and temperamental to delightful once again.

Permanently eliminating boredom is an impossible and never-ending task. Even if you did somehow manage to cram your life full of distracting activities from dawn until dusk, you would soon discover that there are opportunities to overeat regardless. In fact, many people live busy, productive lives yet still manage to binge eat. Some of these people believe that the stress of a hectic life causes overeating. In other words, while some believe overeating is caused by a lack of activity, others believe an excess is responsible. Two completely opposite states are blamed for the same problem.

Eliminating boredom while ignoring the cravings that are at the root of the problem is like mopping the floor while having a leak in the roof. It is a temporary solution that delays rather than remedies the problem.

If you had zero food cravings, you would not eat, no matter how bored you became

It is curious that with the enormous plethora of potentially interesting options available in the modern world, a repetitive hand-to-mouth activity with severe negative consequences is the chosen solution. If ending boredom is your goal, why not select a different behavior?

Many therapists recommend making a list of activities to engage in when boredom strikes. The hope is that you might distract yourself from food cravings by calling a friend, partaking in a hobby, listening to music, reading a book, going for a walk, and so on. Here is another idea to add to the list. Next time you are bored, why not consider trimming a patch of lawn with scissors and carefully counting the blades of grass? If a deep craving strikes, you could measure the blades of grass or sort them according to height.

No doubt, you reject this lawn-trimming ‘boredom solution’ as pointless and absurd, despite the fact that it would involve your hands and keep your brain busy. Such actions (of which there is an infinite supply) never enter your consciousness as a possibility, regardless of how bored you get. This is because, unless you are a botanist conducting an experiment, doing such things is predicted to have zero impact upon your survival. Thus, you have no interest in such activities.

There many things that you would never consider, no matter how bored you became. For example, would you snort heroin if you became exceptionally bored tonight? (If you would, insert an addictive substance that you have no interest in using). The point is that boredom alone is not enough to make you do something that you do not want to do. So why do you choose to overeat, despite knowing that it harms you? At the very least, why not select a less damaging hand-to-mouth activity, such as drinking water? Of all the things that you could partake in, why choose eating?

Food cravings, not boredom, prompt eating

Just as you don’t usually visit the bathroom without signals from your abdomen, eating rarely occurs without a nudge in that direction from cravings. If hunger is absent, the presence of boredom becomes irrelevant. This is evident when you’re sick and lose your appetite. You may feel miserable, lethargic, and bored, lying around with nothing to do. Yet, the propensity to overeat at such times is low.

The role of hunger in ‘boredom eating’ is also revealed when people take medications for unrelated conditions and inadvertently discover that their tendency to overeat reduces. Drugs can affect appetite for a myriad of reasons. Of course, artificially modifying appetite is a risky premise that opens the door for unintended consequences. But the fact that this does and can occur supports the notion that is it hunger, rather than boredom, that drives eating.

Overeating cultivates boredom

As an ex-chain smoker I can assure you that there are no more boring activities in life than lighting up one filthy cigarette after another, day in day out, year in year out.

– Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking: Revised Edition, Allen Carr (2015)

If you restrict your intake of genuine foods or consume deceptive foods on a regular basis (hence elevating your appetite), the prospect of eating can seem far more appealing and enticing than usual. When obtaining nutrition is a high priority, your brain attributes a great deal of attention and focus to this task. Excessive hunger can make eating seem like the most important thing to do, but once food begins making its way inside your gut, interest in the activity quickly dissipates. Although a novel flavor or a beautiful dish may captivate your attention for a time, most people prefer to partake in other activities in addition to eating, such as talking with family, watching television, reading, or surfing the net. If you binge eat, do you sit alone in a room, thinking how intellectually stimulating and interesting the activity is?

If you were truly seeking an interesting mouth activity, you would be happy to eat something wholesome and nourishing, whenever boredom struck, but this is rarely the case. And if you do eat nourishing, flavor-honest foods while bored, this rapidly satiates your appetite, but does nothing whatsoever to quell the boredom.

Overeating degrades health and happiness, prompting you to withdraw from society, decline social events, and stop partaking in activities. Because overeating is considered shameful, you are also more likely to eat alone, which increases the boredom.

Do you know what’s boring? Never going out with friends because you think you’re too fat.

Do you know what’s boring? Not doing fun activities with your children, because you’re unfit and ashamed.

Do you know what’s boring? Wasting hours of your life, trying to burn off calories that you consumed in a feeding frenzy.

Do you know what’s boring? Wasting year after year researching how to escape this insane prison.

Do you know what’s boring? Eating the same fake foods over and over again, “one last time.”

Fix the hunger, and boredom dissipates on its own

A life enriched by social engagement and strong community ties has immense benefits, as does a productive work life with rewarding hobbies. But this doesn’t mean the lack of these things prompts overeating. If you find yourself consuming large volumes of food while bored, you do not have a boredom problem, you have an elevated appetite.

As with the cranky toddler, the solution is to reliably satisfy the hunger.

It is essential to see this clearly because if you believe that an uneventful life is part of your problem, the situation may feel overwhelming. You may feel as though you have multiple issues to address. On the other hand, if you can recognize that the problem is related only to genuine and deceptive foods, and that nothing else is wrong, you can address the issue with laser focus.

When an elevated appetite is fixed and the role of deceptive foods are fully understood, boredom becomes irrelevant. What is more, when you are healthy and happy, life naturally becomes fuller. You are more likely to be productive and engaged in fruitful and rewarding activities.

Once you see the truth about deceptive foods, actions change, and your health and weight normalize, leading to improved confidence and self-esteem. This, in turn, makes life a lot less boring of its own accord.

To achieve this outcome, you must see yourself not as someone incapable of dealing with boredom adequately but as a wonderful, capable human being who has temporarily been deceived.

I need your help. 😊

I am hoping to harvest the power of the internet, and the collective hive mind to both strengthen the argument that boredom plays a role in overeating, and to collate the best arguments against this.

I would love you to add comments below, offering any additional ideas or arguments you have related to boredom eating (either side of the argument). If you are not convinced that the arguments presented here, please say why. Alternatively, if you have any other good reasons why boredom is not an important factor, please share these too!

The more thorough each side of the argument is, the more people will be able to determine what is really right and wrong.

If you can already see that boredom is not blame, please explain why, as your thoughts will help numerous others break free. All comments (for or against) help make sure the logic is as thorough and convincing as possible. After all, the best way to counter arguments effectively, is to hear them first.

I will periodically integrate ideas shared within comments within the article above. Thank you so much for any input shared! 😊

Written by

I am a mother from New Zealand. I have no relevant work experience or nutritional qualifications (I have degrees in completely unrelated fields). What I do have, however, is almost two decades of personal experience being embroiled in what can only be described as a dietary well as the great and utter joy of being free of it. Follow me on my newly created Twitter account!

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