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Are You Really Hungry or Are You Just Bored?

The fridge emits a low hum and casts an incandescent halo around your silhouette, while you stand staring at the illuminated shelves, searching for the ideal snack to satisfy your hunger. Mulling over the options, you ask yourself “Salty or Sweet?” ignoring the precut celery or carrots, in search of something ‘better’ and more rewarding. Perhaps the more important question you should be asking is, are you actually hungry?

beckoning fridge in the dark

Hunger or Boredom?

Eating out of boredom, or boredom eating is a problem that many of us grapple with. Boredom is, well, boring. It leaves us feeling bleh, since boredom is an emotional state associated with feeling empty, unsatisfied, restless, and without a purpose or direction. When we are bored, we subconsciously seek out ways to stimulate ourselves (Havermans et al. 2015), arouse positive emotions, and feel good; but also, to feel purposeful again. Since biological drives for hunger and thirst are necessary for survival, mindlessly choosing to eat when bored is a deeply ingrained pathway in our brains. Eating not only makes us “feel” good but also serves a specific purpose (i.e. survival), and therefore eating offers an easy solution to combat boredom. This helps explain why we instinctively believe we are hungry when in reality we are just bored, because the two pathways overlap in our brains. Snacking and mindless eating become an activity to distract us from our boredom, for the purpose of feeling better (Koball et al. 2012). This impulse is especially common when we become less engaged in a task, like after sitting for long periods of time watching television or working from home on an uninteresting project. Boredom eating is an attempt to feel good and overcome feelings of dissatisfaction by stimulating our brains with food.

Boredom eating makes us feel better because eating in general makes our brain “feel” good. Our brains release “feel good” chemicals (endorphins, endocannabinoids, and dopamine) in response to eating. Importantly, foods high in sugars and fats signal our brains to release a larger amount of dopamine, the chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward that also motivates behavior. Our brains are especially sensitive to these foods because they occur less frequently in nature and are higher in calories, so when we eat them, our brain gets excited and releases a lot of dopamine. This dopamine release is basically signaling to the rest of the brain, consume as much as possible of this food, regardless of our hunger levels, because the food is scarce and high in calories, which across evolution was important for survival. Therefore, our brains trick us into consuming greater amounts of these high calorie (tasty) foods that create the greatest dopamine response, whether or not we are hungry for the sake of survival, a lingering sign from our evolutionary journey (Volkow et al. 2012). As a result, many of us unintentionally develop a snacking habit when bored, leading to eating more calories than is necessary. What you may be wondering next is, how do I break this habit?

Mindfulness to The Rescue

Knowledge is power; therefore, understanding that we eat out of boredom as a means to feel good and trigger a release of dopamine, endocannabinoids, and endorphins in our brain means that we can identify approaches to stop boredom eating and break these habit loops. Identifying ways to be more mindful and present when making choices throughout the day is the overarching theme behind these five approaches listed below to stop boredom eating and regain control.

(1) IDENTIFY TRIGGERS AND PLAN AHEAD:

An important feature of mindfulness is checking in with yourself throughout the day to be more present and capable of identifying specific emotions and needs, and ultimately become more aware of your unconscious behavior. With practice, you can become more aware of your triggers that drive boredom eating. Throughout the day, begin to ask yourself “how do I feel” and “what are my needs in this moment?” By simply checking in throughout the day, you will begin to become more present and aware and may begin to notice patterns in your daily life. You may now realize that you are reaching for a snack at a very specific time each day or eat more on certain days when you have less virtual meetings for work. Knowing your triggers can help you change your behavior by developing a plan for how to alter your response. 

Are you hungry for a snack at a specific time each day, and you ruled out boredom? Prepare for it by having a healthy snack planned for that time each day. You find that you eat more on days with less virtual meetings because you feel sad or detached with less social stimulation? Challenge yourself to break up the monotony of solo work behind a computer by taking a few minutes to address your need for social interaction during the day. Try reaching out to a coworker or a friend for a brief chat. Create actionable plans using the “If…Then…” format and become more empowered by addressing your emotions and needs in numerous ways that do not involve eating. Since emotions themselves can be powerful drives for behavior, by learning to recognize the emotions driving these habit loops and your specific needs throughout the day, you will become more capable at challenging these habits and reshaping your behavior.

(2) DISTRACT / REDIRECT: 

Begin reshaping ingrained behaviors by distracting yourself and redirecting to a new one. Check in with yourself, how long have you been sitting? Try getting up and taking a few minutes to stretch, get yourself a drink of water, or if possible, go outside for fresh air or even a short walk. Then when you come back, distract yourself with a new task that is more productive or switch to something that will be more engaging. Oftentimes by redirecting yourself to a productive task, you’ll get refocused and mentally stimulated by the new task, and completely forget about eating a mindless snack. 

(3) HYDRATE: 

Although hydrating is a way to both distract and redirect behavior, it is a powerful approach for challenging boredom eating. First ask yourself when you feel like a snack, am I hungry or am I just thirsty? When you are less attuned to your body’s signals, it can be difficult to discriminate between hunger and thirst. By having a glass of water and waiting several minutes, you provide yourself the space to be mindful and aware to listen to your body and begin to recognize and learn these different signals. Still ‘feel’ snacky after 10 minutes? Challenge yourself by asking if an apple would satisfy your hunger. If the answer is no, and only a specific snack will do, you are not hungry, and just eating out of boredom. Try sucking on a mint and drinking some more water and take the initiative to make an eating plan for the rest of the day. Planning ahead will help give you something to look forward to and allow you to indulge in something you really want at a designated mealtime, acting as a latent reward to satisfy that urge. 

(4) SNACK PROOF YOUR HOME:

Although boredom eating is most readily associated with consuming low quality foods with empty calories, scientists found that people performing a task that had a high degree of boredom were more likely to increase their consumption of not only unhealthy foods (high in sugars and fats), but also increase their consumption of attractive, healthy foods (Moynihan et al., 2015). Since change is slow and one of the unspoken keys to success is planning ahead, you are not going to immediately be able to stop boredom eating in a single day. But you can take actionable steps to create a home environment that promotes success. Start by snack proofing your home. Eliminate temptation early on when you first shop for groceries. Stop buying your ideal snack foods or your ‘guilty pleasures’. By saying “No” to yourself in the store, you only have to say no to yourself once. Stock up on healthy, nutrient rich foods when grocery shopping, and explore what healthy foods are attractive to you and that you enjoy eating. By surrounding yourself with only healthy options at home, you create an environment where if you do snack, you’re snacking on healthy food. By opting out of buying less healthy options, it then creates a hurdle to mindlessly eating salty or sweet foods you are craving, by requiring you to go out of your way to acquire those snacks.

(5) MINDFULNESS and ACCOUNTABILITY

Continue to practice mindfulness throughout the day when you feel the urge to snack by asking yourself “Am I hungry? Or am I just bored?” Try rating your hunger. Next time you find yourself eating, ask yourself why? When did I last eat? Can I do something else with my time to make me feel good? Changing behaviors takes time since our brains become entrenched in the neural pathways for behaviors we rehearse again and again, which can make it challenging to create new ones. But committing to a plan, holding yourself accountable, and practicing self-compassion will help you make the changes you wish to make and help you stop and overcome boredom eating. But if you have to snack, make it a healthy choice. 

What am I really hungry for?
What am I really hungry for?

Ultimately, learning to reshape our eating habits for the better takes time! It also means that, even with these tricks and the best of intentions, there will still be sometimes that snacking gets the better of us. And that’s why we created Citravarin fasting mints, which can help turn down the hunger and distractions and get your focus back to what you really want to do.