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Does this sound familiar? Every time you’re bored or stressed you can’t help but head to the kitchen for a snack. It may almost seem like a compulsive feeling. I’ve had many clients that feel very frustrated by boredom eating, especially when they don’t feel hungry but can’t seem to stop turning to food when boredom hits. If this is you, maybe you’ve tried everything, but you still can’t help but reach for food when you don’t have anything else to do. If that’s the case, in this post, we’ll take a look at why you can’t stop opening the fridge when you’re bored, plus I’ll offer up some solutions on how to stop boredom eating that are practical and actionable. Let’s jump right in.
Why do I eat out of boredom?
Boredom eating falls under the category of emotional eating. I recommend you check out this post on the different types of hunger if you want to understand emotional eating more clearly.
In a nutshell, eating out of boredom and loneliness (or stress) is one of the many ways we may be using food to distract ourselves from difficult feelings. As I’ve mentioned before, food can be very comforting and pleasurable, and it’s normal to turn to it when we want to feel good. Just like other forms of emotional eating, eating out of boredom isn’t inherently wrong, it’s just probably not the most effective solution to what’s really going on.
The Boredom Eating Cycle
Now, diet culture tends to malign emotional eating (or any type of eating, if we’re being honest 🙄). This is why we tend to feel shame and “weakness” for giving in to emotional eating. That’s why it’s so hard to learn how to stop boredom eating–because it only makes things worse. Let’s look at the following graphic to see how the only thing the emotional shame cycle feeds is itself.
As you can notice, emotional eating, such as boredom eating, will cause conditioned guilt and shame, which will, in turn, create a stress response in the body. This stressful state will then feed the initial negative emotions we were trying to get rid of in the first place, thus perpetuating the emotional eating cycle. In the words of Alyssa Rumsey, a fellow non-diet Registered Dietitian in her amazing book, Unapologetic Eating: “Wouldn’t it be better to accept emotional eating for what it is–a coping mechanism–and move on once it’s served its purpose?”
What to do instead of eating when bored
As we just saw above, eating due to boredom is our way of finding something to provide fulfillment, or to fill an emotional need–in this case, the need for stimulation or fun. In my professional experience, what seems to bother folks the most when it comes to boredom eating is:
- Lack of understanding why they do it
- The unhelpful diet culture and anti-fat bias messages that bring up food guilt
- Frustration at feeling like they can’t stop
Remember, boredom eating, like any other type of eating, is a valid reason to eat. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Think about it: if the messages that tell you that eating chocolate when you’re upset is “wrong” didn’t exist, would you feel bad about yourself if you soothed yourself with devil’s food cake after an awful day at work? Probably not…
However, it is important to recognize that boredom eating can become problematic if it’s the only mechanism you use when you’re feeling bored. It can also complicate your relationship with food if you’re constantly using it to try to fix your problems or numb your emotions. So what’s the answer?
Boredom Eating Solutions
As an intuitive eating/ Health at Every Size aligned dietitian, I won’t be giving you the usual strategies such as: chew gum, drink water, brush your teeth, blah, blah, blah. Why? Because these are just superficial, Band-Aid solutions. They might work for a bit, but eventually, the emotions underneath the eating behaviors will come up again and you’ll be left feeling frustrated due to “lack of willpower” (which, as we saw, isn’t the issue at all). What will ultimately help you on how to stop eating when bored all boils down to these 4 strategies:
- Attunement to hunger signals
- Development of different coping skills
1. Cultivating eating awareness to stop boredom eating
Remember how I said before that folks find boredom eating particularly upsetting when they don’t know why they do it? Have you ever asked yourself: why did I just eat all those cookies when I was already full? Here’s where becoming more aware of our eating habits can bring clarity. More specifically, we need to become aware of the feelings that are surrounding, and ultimately driving, our eating habits. As a matter of fact, this research paper talks about how lack of emotional regulation is associated with eating out of boredom or stress. Here are some useful guidelines, whether you want to learn how to stop boredom eating at work, or just how to better understand your emotional eating:
- Identify your emotions. It’s normal that given any negative situations we are experiencing we may feel fear, loneliness, frustration, anguish, and lack of control. Accepting what you feel is the first step.
- Practice sitting with your emotions. Our natural response as human beings is to run away from pain as quickly as possible. However, running from our emotions–via eating or other distractions–won’t make them go away, unfortunately. At the end of the day, emotions are just messages, and the more we practice listening to these messages, the less scary they’ll seem and the better we’ll be able to handle them. Check out this amazing article on ways to practice sitting with your emotions, if you don’t know where to start.
- Consider keeping a food and emotions journal. Boredom eating can be a result of a lack of awareness of your eating habits. Keeping a food and emotions journal, even for a few days, will help you become much more aware of what, when, and why you are eating. It’s especially useful in helping you recognize what emotion is behind your eating out of boredom habit. This may, in turn, lead you to address your particular emotional needs more effectively.
2. Attunement to hunger signals
As you gain more awareness about why you turn to eating when bored (feelings, environment, triggers), you may also consider learning to get in touch with your hunger signals. Chronic dieting or relying on external eating rules can definitely disconnect us from our true hunger signals.
Getting to know your hunger and fullness cues is key when learning to determine when you’re eating out of boredom. Here’s a handy hunger scale to help you determine your hunger cues. For each meal, try to see which number you would rate your hunger at.
This rating scale ranges from 1 to 10, where 1 is extremely painful hunger and 10 is extremely painful fullness. By regularly practicing checking in with your hunger, this method will help you listen and become more in tune with your hunger and fullness cues.
Just try to write down in each box which number feels more “right” during each meal. An easy way is to notice which physical sensations are associated with each number. This way, you have a clear way to “visualize” your hunger cues. Try it for a day or two and see what you learn about yourself!
Eating slowly and mindfully will also help you get more in tune with your hunger and fullness signals, and over time it’ll be easier to “read” them.
3. Development of different coping skills
As you may have already figured out, eating to deal with boredom is not the most helpful or realistic long-term solution. There is also no one, stand-alone coping strategy that will work for every difficult feeling you go through, Which is why it’s more useful to develop different coping skills that you can have in your self-care toolbox. It may take some time and work to figure out what best works for you, but it’s well worth the effort if you want to learn how to stop boredom eating or other emotional eating behaviors.
Here are some boredom eating strategies, based on underlying emotional needs, and inspired by the book Unapologetic Eating:
- Connection: These strategies are geared towards filling the need to connect with yourself and/or others. Try calling a friend, going for a walk with a loved one or a pet, visiting a bookstore, museum, or café, or finding a support group.
- Relaxation: For when you could use some peace in your day. Meditation, a warm bath, breathing exercises, a hot cup of tea, reading, coloring, and progressive muscle relaxation can be especially useful.
- Pleasure: Stimulate your senses! Consider listening to music you enjoy, watching a fun movie, lying under a weighted blanket (I personally love them!), light a pleasant-smelling candle, or savor something delicious mindfully.
- Movement: Literally moving–out of your head and into your body–can be a great boredom buster. From more relaxing forms of movement (yoga, tai chi, or gentle stretching), to much more vigorous types (jogging, walking briskly, or dancing), any type of physical activity is valid. I personally find cleaning and organizing my house helps me get out of a funk. #neatfreak
- Release: Pent-up emotions end up bubbling over. So go ahead and have a good cry, punch a pillow, scream, or free-write. Believe me, you’ll feel so much better afterward.
You can make your own list of coping strategies that work best and have it handy for when you feel boredom, or any other uncomfortable emotion, coming over you. Try any of them for a bit, and then reassess your desire for food. If you still want to eat, eat! With time and practice, you’ll be better equipped to meet your emotional needs much more adequately.
4. Practicing self-compassion
In my professional opinion, one of the best things to eat when dealing with boredom eating is a big, heaping plate of…. self-compassion. Sometimes, emotions are just too complex, or we may not have developed the tools to manage them adequately, and controlling certain impulses can be too difficult. We’re human, after all! The more love and compassion we give ourselves and our struggles, the more at peace we can be with ourselves.
It can feel almost like a knee-jerk reaction to berate yourself for eating out of boredom. As you’ve probably already experienced, this may lead to another bout of emotional eating behaviors. So why not try something different instead? Can you recognize that underneath it all, you’re just trying to take care of yourself? That maybe it’s the only way you know how? Can you sit with the feelings that are driving you to head to the kitchen for a little while and see what they’re trying to tell you? What can you start learning about yourself from the way you eat?
By approaching these questions without judgment (I know, easier said than done!), you start understanding yourself a little bit better, and your eating behaviors will start making more sense to you. Practicing self-compassion while you work through this teaches you to honor, respect, and care for yourself and your body as is your right to.
As we’ve just learned, boredom eating is not something you have to “overcome”, “control” or “banish”. You just need some understanding as to what’s underneath it, and as to what would best serve that particular need. Whether it be a need for connection, soothing, or just outright eating, listening to and honoring your needs is the best way to build self-trust. And if you need more 1:1 help with your eating worries, I’m just a click away!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…