How to break the cycle of eating out of boredom

Boredom eating may seem harmless but it is one of the top reasons for eating when not hungry and in turn making all your weight loss efforts fail

woman with icecream in hand, eating out of boredom

After a long day, you sink into your couch and turn on the TV only to watch reruns of sitcoms and movies that you’ve seen a million times before because there’s nothing better to watch. Or you sit at your desk to work on that report for your boss, but you can’t help procrastinating. Or you simply have nothing to do; so your mind begins to wander and it variably leads you to the pantry or the refrigerator. Perhaps you reach for that jar of cookies, the packet of chips, or a slice of cake that you were saving for ‘unexpected visitors’. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bar of cake or an entire bowl of chips. That’s when the guilt starts to kick in. You didn’t need to eat any of that and you know that it’s not benefiting you. You promise yourself that you will do better next time, but deep down you know that it’s likely you will do it again. In reality, you were just eating out of boredom.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Why do we eat when bored

Boredom eating is a lot more common than you think and it affects many of us at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, of all the reasons we eat, boredom has got to be the least helpful. It’s almost always a psychological response rather than a physical need to fuel our body, but it’s a compulsion that creates a habit and as you know all too well—it’s very difficult to break bad habits once they take hold. But why do we feel the need to do it when we know that we shouldn’t?

It’s because eating out of boredom and emotional eating are closely connected. Boredom doesn’t just allow your mind to wander to places you normally wouldn’t want it to go to, but it also makes you feel like you’re not in control. For example, you have little control over what’s airing on the television or work demands from your boss. When this happens and your boredom makes you start to feel despair or uncomfortable, emotional eating takes over, wherein you eat because food makes you feel a certain way or helps suppress those negative emotions. These unhealthy coping strategies are often something we learn in childhood.

If for example, your grandmother used to shower you with love and plenty of freshly baked goodies every time you visited her, it’s likely that as a child you built a connection between cake and love.

Likewise, maybe your parents used to treat you to chips or nachos to distract you or stop you from crying whenever you hurt yourself, or simply got bored during your summer holidays. Such childhood experiences can create an association where we use food to distract ourselves from feeling painful or unpleasant emotions.

It’s an association that persists into adulthood for many of us and it gets most critical when we start using food to suppress feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction with life. There can be any number of triggers for this, from being bullied in the playground, controlled by narcissistic parents or partners, abuse, the list is endless, but traumatic events can often perpetuate this use of food as a defensive weapon against whatever has hurt us.

Over time, this pattern of behaviour and response to situations gets hardwired into our psyche—in other words, it forms a habit. This is what makes it so difficult to break a habit, because it’s literally been programmed into our operating system.

Although we’re all unique and have different triggers or reasons for eating when bored, the brain chemistry that drives our impulses is common to all of us.

We get a dopamine hit from eating things that we enjoy. It’s the same chemical hit that cocaine addicts get, and it’s interesting that most people gravitate towards sugary foods when eating out of boredom. After all, scientists have found that sugar can be just as addictive as cocaine, if not more. This means that what was once just a habit eventually becomes an addiction. This makes it incredibly hard to break.

What to do when you feel like eating out of boredom

That said, we are never too old or too fixed in our ways to change our programming. You can start by trying to be more aware of your thoughts and actions. Increased mindfulness helps you become observant of these behaviours and feelings before you even act on them. Mindfulness is more than some trendy practice that everyone’s talking about. It has real life benefits. Increased awareness of your thoughts and feelings in any given moment is the first step to changing them. To get started, try a mindfulness app and practice observing your thoughts, rather than letting them control you. When you go to the fridge or cupboard because you are bored, check in with your body and mind. What are they telling you they actually need? More often than not, you’ll realise that you don’t really need food. Of course, the realisation alone won’t always help if you don’t break the pattern.

Find something that helps break the pattern or stops you from feeling bored. Rather than sitting home to watch endless reruns on TV, try a new hobby, join a group or experiment with different types of exercise until you find something that excites you. If you tend to reach for biscuits when making a cup of tea, do squats, try a new dance move, or get to your next chore whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. It really doesn’t matter what you chose to do, so long as it distracts you and stops you from eating out of boredom.

Mantras to help you eat mindfully

Start experimenting with mantras—repeating phrases [and write them out on sticky notes and post them around your home, including on the fridge and cupboard door]. Keep them positive—about how you want to feel and act, and keep looking until you find ones that resonate with you. My personal favourites include, ‘I’m choosing to eat like an adult and I choose to eat when I’m hungry’, ‘I am special without needing food to make me feel it’, and so on. You can find your own, write your own, or recycle one of these.

If you still find that you are struggling with your relationship with food, explore therapies that enable you to reprogram your subconscious beliefs and behaviours. Behavioural therapists, counsellors, and meditation or mindfulness trainers can all help you to achieve these goals, giving you greater control over your feelings, empowering you with the tools to respond to even the most unpleasant feelings in a healthy manner.

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