Nutrition: Why we eat when we’re bored (and what to do about it)

Experiencing boredom is nothing new. However, with stay-at-home orders and socializing frowned upon, we may recently have been feeling more bored than ever! At these times, it’s tempting to turn to our tried and true method for easing boredom: food.

But how did this happen? How did our brains decide that the best way to relieve boredom is to eat?

One reason is dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain that’s strongly tied with feelings of reward and pleasure. When we’re bored, our brains aren’t stimulated, and this causes our dopamine levels to drop. This triggers us to take an action that will bring it back up, such as eating.

Of course, there are other ways to spike dopamine levels—drugs, cigarettes and sex, to name a few—but for a lot of us, food does the trick just fine!

But that’s not all.

Yes dopamine plays a role, but there’s more that goes into our perpetual need for chips when we’re feeling uninspired.

When we experience boredom, we feel the need to participate in behaviors that result in pleasure. However, if we consistently turn to a particular behavior, our brain becomes less able to experience pleasure from other activities.

That means if we frequently rely on food to relieve boredom, our brain becomes rewired to derive the most pleasure from food.

Eventually our brain will crave eating over other activities because that’s how it experiences the most pleasure

However, there are three (obvious) problems with this approach to handling boredom:

  1. Most of the time, we don’t actually need food. So not only do we mess with our appetite for the next meal, we also end up getting extra calories that our body doesn’t need.
  2. Those extra calories are also generally empty calories; when bored, we rarely (if ever) choose to eat nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats.
  3. We rarely feel satisfied when we’re done eating. Instead we’re more likely to experience guilt or frustration with our “lack of willpower.”

Fortunately, we’re not stuck with this habit for life. There are a few things we can do to help break ourselves out of the boredom-food cycle:

1| Notice when you’re eating due to boredom.

Sounds easy enough, right? Become familiar with the times and/or situations you’re most likely to experience boredom, then notice if and when you turn to food for relief. Do you feel bored more often during the day or late at night? While you’re working or while watching TV after dinner? Keep a journal to help with identifying your patterns and trends.

2| Brainstorm other ways to address boredom.

Come up with a list of all the activities you enjoy. Consider hobbies, creative outlets, intellectual pursuits and other activities that get your brain or body engaged. Decide which one(s) you want to try the next time you’re feeling bored.

If your list of activities is looking a little sparse, it may be time to try something new—or return to a soothing hobby from your past. Learn how to knit or take up painting. Sign up for music lessons or become a dog walker. Ask your friends what they like to do and try it out for yourself.

If you still find yourself wanting to eat, even with an arsenal of new activities, have no fear! Remember that the more you use an activity, the more it becomes connected to your brain’s pleasure center. So the more you do it, the more enjoyable it will become.

3| Embrace boredom.

There’s no better time to try this! Instead of reaching for food—or your phone, or a cigarette, or whatever—lean into the feeling of boredom, let your mind wander and be curious. Not only does this give your brain the freedom to think outside the box, it also disrupts the neurological connection between food and pleasure.

A study published in the journal “Academy of Management Discoveries” found that experiencing boredom can actually increase creativity. In the study, one group of participants performed boring tasks, such as copying numbers from an old phone book, while the control group didn’t. Both were then asked to complete creativity tests, such as coming up with uses for a pair of cups.

The study found that those who completed the boring tasks came up with more ideas than those in the control group. It also found that the first group’s ideas were often more creative.

So don’t try to fight off boredom. Ultimately, the more comfortable we are with being bored, the less likely we’ll need food (or anything else) to distract us from it.

Healthy eating!