Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Do You Eat Out of Boredom?

The biology of boredom eating…and how to beat it

It's 8pm on a Sunday. You already ate dinner and watched Jersey Shore / Holby City [delete depending on country of origin] even though a) you can't stand that show, and b) you already saw that episode. And now you really, really, REALLY should get started on that essay / presentation / big pile of ironing. You absolutely must not procrastinate any longer. You know that you also said this yesterday, but you're completely serious this time - no more delaying, you have to HAVE to do it now or there will be consequences, all of them negative. Oh god, you really don't want to though. It's going to be so...boring. Boring, boring, boring. Wait, how did you end up in front of the fridge? And why are you opening the door? And what's in that plastic container? Oooo, leftovers...

Of all the reasons we eat, boredom has to be one of the least helpful.

Eating because we're hungry and we didn't eat lunch yet? Makes sense. Eating because we just made a spectacular red velvet cake with extra frosting and one mouthful isn't enough to truly evaluate its merits? Who could blame us?

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Eating out of boredom, on the other hand, is generally pointless. It almost always happens when we're not in physiological need of food, there's usually something much more useful we could be getting on with, and after the first couple of bites it's not even that satisfying as we weren't really hungry in the first place.

So why do we do it?

At the risk of demonizing one of my favorite neurotransmitters, I'm going to go ahead and level my accusation at dopamine.

Neuroscientists are still figuring out what this clever little chemical messenger does, but current thinking is that it's crucial to the experience of motivation and drive.

Falling head-over-heels in love and longing to be in the presence of your object of affection? Developing a crack cocaine addiction and craving your next hit? About to prove your Iphone gaming supremacy by breaking through to the fifteenth level of Angry Birds?

Whatever your latest obsession may be, you can bet that your dopamine neurons are firing like billy-o, compelling you to take concerted, directed action to achieve whatever it is that you're after.

And while this isn't always a whole lot of fun (ever wanted something or someone so much that it was almost physically painful?) there's one thing it definitely isn't—and that's ‘boring'.

In fact, the release of dopamine in the brain can be so stimulating and motivating that rats will lever-press for it to the exclusion of other crucially important activities like sleeping and eating, and people who have naturally lower levels of dopamine activity are more likely to seek out and become addicted to dopamine-producing stimuli like alcohol or drugs.

What does this all have to do with boredom eating?

Well it's possible that when we're in a malaise, so are our dopamine neurons. When we boredom-eat what we're really doing is trying to wake them up so we can feel excited again.

And in the absence of more stimulating fare—or a handy dopamine neuron-stimulating electrode in our brain that we can trigger with a lever when we fancy a thrill—food starts to look like a pretty effective way of doing this.

After all, 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. And one survey study recently found that that the happiest moments of a typical participant's day were the ones where he or she was eating something. (I'm not sure how to feel about this—I think a weeny bit depressed...)

Now I should probably pause here to point out that I'm not saying that this is necessarily what's going on when we listlessly devour bits of leftover takeout when we should be doing something productive. In fact I should probably go one step further and seize this opportunity to confess on the behalf of my appetite research brethren that we haven't actually amassed many hard facts regarding the biology of boredom eating per se.

First, it tends to get lumped in with the more general phenomenon of ‘emotional eating,' so very few people have studied it as a separate construct.

Second, like many other types of eating behavior, it's hard to induce in a laboratory setting, and even harder to study ‘in the field.' Hopefully one day we'll be able to clamp portable, high-resolution brain scanners to our heads so we can see exactly what's going on in people's minds during those ennui-inspired trips to the candy cupboard. But until then you will have to make do with my rampant speculation.

What can be done, though, if my hunch is correct? I'd like to humbly proffer a few suggestions.

First, how about finding some other way to trick your dopamine into flowing?

One could always do something objectively fun, of course - like watching a favorite movie or curling up with a juicy book.

But you might also be able to find a dopaminergic ruse to help you get going on that task you've been avoiding: listening to a favorite band while struggling with that powerpoint presentation, or treating yourself to a new audio book to listen to while you're scaling your laundry mountain, could make the whole thing more enjoyable and decrease your need to look for dopamine fixes in the fridge.

Second, why not try rising above the tendency to seek pleasure all the time and avoiding the dopamine trap altogether?

The jury's still out on whether ‘alternative therapies' like meditation can help you lose weight, but few would deny that closing your eyes and quieting your thoughts for a little while can make you feel much happier and calmer, and if you're the nervous type of boredom eater, this could well end up reducing your desire to boredom-binge.

Interested in giving it a try? I dare you not to feel relaxed and groovy after listening for 10 minutes to the nice lady on this meditation app.

And if nothing else, you will at least have bought yourself a little time to decide whether you're really hungry or not—and to put some distance between you and the cold vegetarian pizza.

Good luck!

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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