Bored, Bored, Bored, and Overeating
Why do you keep turning to food?
Posted May 18, 2020
Boredom can be a good thing or a bad thing, says Erin Westgate, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. If boredom leads to daydreaming that sparks creative thinking, that could be a good thing. But if boredom causes you to indulge in dangerous behavior, like substance abuse or self-harm, the results are likely to be bad. This is also true with overeating out of boredom.
Boredom is an emotion, just like loneliness, anger, and sorrow. It’s also a signal, says Dr. Westgate. Boredom alerts us to the fact that, for some reason, we can’t or won’t engage in a more meaningful activity. If you are an emotional overeater—meaning, you respond to your emotions by turning to food—boredom is bound to get the best of you when you can’t think of anything else to do. The obvious answer may be “find something else to do,” but that can be difficult if food is what you do.
You can start by stopping yourself from repeatedly saying, “I’m bored.” If you constantly remind yourself how bored you are, it becomes part of your belief system that you get bored easily, before you even try to find something besides eating to occupy your time. Think about it: Eating is a temporary pleasure. It’s over before you know it, and then you’ll be bored again, and likely to eat again sooner than necessary simply to alleviate the boredom.
The question to ask yourself is: Why aren’t you doing something else? You have some have free time on your hands; are you afraid to try something new? And if so, is it fear of failure or fear of commitment? Do boredom and emotional eating feel safer and more comfortable than introducing change into your life? While it’s true that there are times when there is simply nothing to do, coming to grips with any emotions associated with overeating can help you understand that the problem may be internal and not necessarily a result of an under-stimulating external world around you.
It can also be difficult to differentiate between true hunger and emotional hunger, because the feelings are similar, and the result is the same: You eat. One clue is that when you are truly hungry, when your stomach actually feels empty, almost any food will satisfy you. When you are eating to escape boredom or any other emotion, it may feel more like a craving for a specific type of food. Or you may be eating randomly throughout the day without even realizing how much you’re taking in. Next time you’re rummaging around the kitchen for another snack, stop and ask yourself if you are truly hungry, or if you can do something else and put off eating until your next meal.
If you do it right, keeping a food journal can help you see what, when, where, and how much you are overeating. The right way is to write down the type and amount of food you eat, as well as the location and time. That way, you may be able to identify an eating style that needs correction.
For instance, you may not realize that you eat several extra snacks in the afternoon every day while you’re on your computer. And even if you know that’s the time when you overeat, you may not realize how much you’re eating until you start to keep track of every bite. In order to break a boredom eating habit, it helps to first recognize your individual patterns of overeating. Use your journal to come up with a more sensible eating plan, and remember that it’s OK to schedule a fun snack at some point in the day. You don’t have to give up everything; you just want to break the random, mindless, emotional eating habit you’ve developed in response to boredom.
Even if you think boredom eating is circumstantial or temporary, it’s a good idea to try to reign it in. Overeating can become both a physical and psychological habit that could carry over into more normal times. Your stomach has something called “muscle memory.” The muscular walls of your stomach get used to holding a certain amount of food before it distends enough to send out signals of fullness to your brain. Whenever you eat, your stomach waits for that sensation of fullness from that amount of food.
Also, when you eat, say, three times a day, your brain and stomach send out hunger and fullness signals just three times a day. But when you randomly eat, say, six or eight times a day, those signals are regularly sent out six or eight times a day. You start to feel hungry more often. By putting a stop to boredom eating, you can retrain your stomach’s muscle memory so that it will send out signals of hunger and fullness much sooner and less often.
Westgate, E. Why boredom is interesting. Current Directions in Psychological Science. February 1, 2020; 29(1): 33-40. First published online November 8 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721419884309