We all do it: Sit at home watching TV or scrolling through Facebook on a night we don’t have plans and the weather’s too crummy to move from the sofa. And then a few hours pass, and you’ve plowed through a family size bag of potato chips, a whole tub of hummus, and the leftover Chinese from the back of the fridge. Even though you just ate dinner.
Welcome to Bored Eating. Just like emotional eating or stress eating, boredom eating is an emotionally fueled, habitual behavior, explains Melissa Kathryn, holistic wellness and weight loss specialist.
“Everyone does it to a degree,” she says. “You’re raised to eat out of love, and to celebrate with food. Are you sad? Let’s go eat! You got a raise? Champagne, and let’s go out to eat!” So it’s not surprising that we naturally turn to food when we’re looking for something to fill our downtime.
It’s not so much that boredom itself makes you snack, Melissa explains; rather, being bored leaves you to ruminate on your thoughts and feelings—so you need something to distract from all that introspection.
“What I find, in a nutshell, is we don’t want to be alone with what we’re feeling,” Melissa notes. “We like to fill that space. We’re a society built on doing, we have to stay busy, we have to do.” When you go home at the end of a whirlwind day and suddenly have nothing to focus on, you’re left to confront the thoughts and feelings you’ve been busily ignoring. Redirecting your attention to food fills the empty time and keeps your mind occupied so you don’t have to face them.
Susan Albers, Psy.D., author of upcoming book 50 More Ways To Soothe Yourself Without Food and clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic specializing in eating issues, weight loss, body image and mindfulness, explains another reason we reach for chips when we’re bored: “It feels purposeful; it fills time, is entertaining, perks up our senses. When we’re bored we become kind of numb.” Snacking hits the three E’s of human behavior, as Dr. Albers calls them—easy, economical and effective. “It’s so convenient and everything is just right there, so that makes it pretty attractive to us.”
Plus when you’re bored, and all the things you could be doing feel like obligations or chores, you’re bound to opt for what’s easy and fun. “Food’s fun. It’s something we have a need for and desire for, and it can give you instant gratification,” Melissa says.
Next time you’re looking to fill that void, try one of these tricks to stop yourself from mindlessly munching.
Question yourself. When you catch yourself on autopilot reaching for another cookie or hundredth handful of peanuts, stop and think about if you’re really, truly hungry. If the answer is no, ask “What do you really want to chew on in life that you’re not doing?” Maybe there’s something you want to say or accomplish, and your eating is a response to a lack of fulfillment. Melissa calls this a “heart craving,” where we eat to fill a void. “Could be a lack in yourself, relationships, career, your family, your body, money,” she says. If there’s a lack of fulfillment, we go for sweet and savory—ice cream, cake, cheese—things that will comfort and soothe us. “What is it that you’re really hungry for?,” she prompts. “Is food going to solve the problem? What can you do instead?”
Wake up your senses. “Try something as simple as changing up locations, or sitting in a different chair,” Albers suggests. We usually end up sitting in the same place, at the same table—choosing somewhere else feels different from routine and keeps things “exciting.” You can also try chewing a piece of gum. “It’s both stimulating and calming at the same time, because it changes your brain waves, so that you’re alert but more focused,” adds Albers.
Get your blood flowing. “A great way is to lay on the floor and put your legs up on the wall, to stimulate circulation,” suggests Albers. “When we’re bored, the body’s stagnant. So any way you can move mindfully—standing up, striking a yoga pose, legs up on the wall—it feels interesting and different and can help to prevent eating.” If you’re at work and can’t lie down on the ground, do doorway stretches. “Put your arms on either side of a doorway, and lean in against your own weight,” Albers says, to create a mini distraction and invigorate your mind when you’re starting to slump.
Find a hobby. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop… or in this case, your waistline’s worst nightmare. Albers suggests an activity like knitting, because it requires video-spacial skills. “Activities like that that take you into this rhythmic place that’s very soothing and calming even if you’re under distress.” Try to avoid baking, because, well, that’s just asking for it.
Play a game on your phone. It may seem like a waste of time when it’s keeping you from grocery shopping or doing the dishes, but a phone game (or even just the New York Times crossword puzzle) is the perfect mental stimulation to stop boredom eating. “Choose an activity that is both stimulating and relaxing at the same time,” Albers says. “You don’t want anything that’s going to be too taxing and too mind numbing. Sometimes TV doesn’t even help—if there’s nothing engaging on, it makes it worse.”
Try, try again. The biggest thing to keep in mind: This is a habit. And the only way to break one for good is with repetition. “Start with awareness and work your way backwards,” Melissa says. “You don’t have to sit and psychoanalyze yourself and feel bad or wrong. Each time you do it, recognize it, and then change it. It’s repetition.” If you keep reminding your brain you want to change your patterns, eventually you will.
READ MORE: How Stress is Sabotaging Your Metabolism