Health Hub

Boredom eating: 10 ways to stop emotional snacking

How to curb the habit.

Boredom Eating: 10 Ways to Stop Emotional Snacking | Juniper

Find yourself edging towards the kitchen for a handful of crisps every time a feeling of restlessness or boredom sets in? 

You’re not alone. A 2020 British Nutrition Foundation survey found that 63% of respondents ate less healthily during lockdowns purely out of boredom [1].

In the same vein as eating when you’re sad or happy, boredom eating is more of a psychological compulsion than an actual need for food. And, left unchecked, it can result in weight gain in the long term. In fact, research has shown that those who eat while distracted can be 17% heavier [2].

If you’re battling boredom eating and want to find more productive ways to get through tedious situations — as well as lose weight — here are 10 ways to curb the habit.

What is boredom eating?

Boredom eating is exactly as it sounds: eating when you’re bored. But underneath its relatively simple explanation is a slightly more complex concept that’s all to do with your emotions. 

You see, boredom eating is a type of emotional eating. That is, when food is used as a balm to cope with situations that are stressful, sad, celebratory or, you guessed it, boring. 

From time to time, emotional eating isn’t overly problematic. But if it becomes your only way of dealing with your feelings, it can lead to poor physical and mental health, as well as weight gain

A 2022 study found that boredom is closely associated with weight gain, not only because people eat when they’re not really hungry, but also because they tend to choose foods that are convenient rather than healthy [3].

Why do we eat when we're bored?

So, why do we so often turn to food when faced with a boring situation? There could be one of several reasons at play.

It makes us feel good

You’ve probably heard of the hormone cortisol, which is released by your body during times of stress. Interestingly, your cortisol levels also go up when you’re bored, as your body effectively enters a state of arousal [4].

How does that relate to eating when you’re bored? Put simply, consuming certain foods makes you feel good. In times of stress, or boredom for that matter, people tend to reach for foods that are salty, sweet or fatty. This is because cortisol makes us crave these foods, as they provide fuel to help combat the source of the stress [5].

To change a situation

Many turn to emotional eating to escape or magnify their feelings in a certain situation [6]. For example, they might eat a tub of ice cream after a bad day of work, or celebrate a good day with a bar of chocolate.

As far as boredom eating specifically goes, researchers have suggested that eating is a way to distract from the lack of purpose in either a particular situation or life in general. The same researchers also found that highly boring situations drive the urge to snack rather than opt for healthy foods [7].

We’re not being mindful

There’s also a difference between real hunger (where your body actually needs something to eat) and psychological hunger (where eating is triggered more by your feelings) [8].

By not really discerning whether you're actually feeling hungry or experiencing psychological hunger, it can be very easy to slip into a pattern of boredom eating.

Real hunger vs psychological hunger

With that in mind, how can you tell whether you’re genuinely hungry or psychologically hungry? There are a few key differences.

When you’re physically hungry, you usually experience [9]:

  • Hunger pangs, which are actually stomach spasms that occur due to a lack of food in the stomach
  • Growling in your stomach
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Fatigue or low-energy
  • Irritability, anxiety or other changes in mood
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Headaches

On the other hand, psychological hunger is usually accompanied by:

  • Food cravings, particularly for sweet, salty or fatty foods
  • Eating when you’re experiencing certain feelings, even happy ones, like boredom
  • Feeling full but eating anyway
  • Feeling unsatisfied or feeling unable to stop eating
  • Feelings of guilt

How to stop boredom eating

Now that you’re familiar with the difference between eating out of hunger and eating out of boredom, let’s get to the good stuff: how to stop boredom eating. 

1. Be OK with boredom

The first step is to get comfortable with feeling bored. Not only is it a natural and common — albeit unpleasant — thing to experience, but it can actually be beneficial.

Boredom can foster creativity and problem-solving, it gives you a chance to reflect, and it also gives your brain a rest [10][11]. So, rather than turning to food to distract yourself, see if you can stay in the moment and use boredom to your advantage.

2. Use distractions

If you struggle with feelings of listlessness, see if distractions help with boredom eating instead. 

Try busying your hands with crafting, gardening, reading or doing things around the house. Call a friend. Listen to music or a podcast. Head outside and go for a walk. Even moving to a different room can distract you from food cravings.

3. Know the signs of real hunger

Understanding the difference between genuine hunger and psychological hunger can help you distinguish if you’re actually hungry or if you’re eating out of boredom.

Become familiar with the signs of physical hunger — like the ones we ran through earlier. If you’re not experiencing any of these hunger signs, but are craving food, question whether or not you’re really hungry or eating out of habit.

4. Practise mindfulness

Mindful eating means recognising your hunger cues, as well as other factors like your emotional state and what and how much you’re eating [12].

There are numerous benefits to mindful eating, including eating less (only to a state of fullness) and choosing healthier foods. Some people find that they lose weight once they start eating more mindfully [13].

To practise mindful eating, pay really close attention to what you’re putting in your mouth. Think about its preparation, how it looks, smells, tastes and feels in your mouth, and how you feel once you’ve finished eating. 

5. Sip on some H20

Aside from keeping you well hydrated, having a bottle of water to turn to when psychological hunger strikes can help keep boredom eating at bay.

It gives you something to do with your hands, satisfies the hand-to-mouth action of eating and can even stave off those feelings of boredom hunger.

6. Stock up on healthy foods

We know that boredom can lead to cravings for salty, sweet, and fatty foods. Sometimes, the best approach is to simply not make those foods available. 

Keep your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy snacks, like fresh fruit, raw nuts, plain yoghurt, and hummus and vegetable sticks. Not only do these deliver more nutritional benefits, but because they’re not typically the things you crave when you’re bored, you may be less inclined to reach for them.

7. Meal plan

There are many advantages to meal planning, not least the fact that you don’t have to think about what to cook each night.

Meal planning lets you take a more considered approach to eating because, instead of grabbing something from the supermarket last minute, you’re able to put together a week’s worth of meals that are higher in nutrition [14].

You can choose dishes that prioritise fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthy sources of fat and protein. That last one is important because protein can make you feel fuller for longer — potentially helping to ward off food cravings between meals.[15]

8. Keep a food diary

You might have certain things that drive your desire to eat when you’re bored — such as procrastinating from work, or even scrolling through Instagram and seeing pictures of food that make you think you’re hungry.

This is where a food diary can come in handy. By keeping track of your food choices and food intake, and the physical and emotional sensations attached to both, you might be able to identify certain patterns of behaviour. 

Then, once you’ve come to understand your triggers, you can do your best to avoid them when you enter a state of boredom.

9. Consider a weight loss programme

If you’re struggling to keep boredom eating under control, you could consider professional assistance in the form of a dedicated weight loss programme.

Juniper’s Weight Reset Programme provides support from a team of UK-registered clinicians and health coaches who can help you get to the root of your boredom eating and work out ways to combat the habit.

Beyond the guidance of weight loss professionals, you’ll also get access to a private weight loss community, health tracking and, if you’re eligible, breakthrough GLP-1 medication that suppresses your appetite and boosts your metabolic function.

10. Remember, you’re only human

The path to overcoming boredom eating can be one filled with twists, turns and setbacks. At the end of the day, you’re only human — so give yourself a break if you find yourself turning to food on occasion.

It’s all about developing and maintaining lifelong eating habits, which can take time, effort, and patience. In due course, and with the right tools and support, you’ll be able to tame your boredom eating habit and overcome it for good.

Photo credit: Thirdman / Pexels