If you are one of the many people who say, “I eat when I’m bored,” here’s what causes boredom eating and what you can do about eating when you’re bored.
What is boredom eating?
When I ask, “What are your top triggers for overeating?” boredom and stress usually tie for first place. The funny thing about that is that stress and boredom are opposites: Stress typically results from having too much to do and boredom often comes from not enough to do! Learn more about Stress Eating here. Here we’ll learn what causes boredom eating and what to do about it.
Often, people don’t realize they feel like eating because they are bored. In fact, boredom eating sometimes happens when you’re really busy – but you’re bored of whatever it is you are doing. Here are some examples of boredom eating:
- You don’t have any exciting plans for the weekend so you make a batch of cookies and nibble on them out of boredom all weekend until they’re gone.
- You are sitting at your computer working and you keep reaching into the candy drawer to find something to munch on. If the task is tedious and you’ve been working on it for a long time without a break, you might be eating out of boredom.
- You are watching TV in the evening and eating snacks. If the show isn’t that engaging, or even when it’s a great show but you’re just an observer, not an active participant, you might want to eat because you need more stimulation or more of a tactile experience.
- You are on a long car ride so you stock up on snacks to keep you alert and occupied. Even when you are the driver, you might be eating to prevent boredom.
- You are cleaning your house and keep finding yourself in the kitchen looking for something to eat. Even though you have plenty to do, it may not be fun enough to keep you from eating out of boredom.
Eating cures boredom – temporarily
As you can see from these examples of boredom eating, most of the time when we feel bored, we are looking for something fun, interesting, or exciting to do. Eating food often meets those criteria.
The problem is when you stop eating, you’re bored again. So you have to eat again! That’s why you keep going back to the kitchen or the break room to eat again when you’re bored. As we often say in our workshops and retreats:
If you aren’t hungry when you start eating, how will you know when to stop?
So, when you feel like eating, pause to notice whether you are hungry. If you’re not hungry, ask yourself, “Do I want to eat because I’m bored?”
The good news is that eating is only one of a thousand things you can do when you’re bored. Although you can always choose to eat even when you’re not hungry, you also have the option to focus on another activity other than eating (or thinking about eating).
(By the way, if you choose to eat anyway, be sure to sit down and eat mindfully. If you eat while you are distracted, the food will be less satisfying and memorable, making it more likely that you’ll want to keep eating.)
Finding something to do besides eat when you’re bored isn’t about deprivation and willpower. It’s about expanding your options beyond food so you begin to build a bigger life.
First, think about why you are bored. Have you been doing the same thing too long and just need a break or change of activity? Do you need a little fun or pleasure in your day? Do you need excitement? Do you need a change of scenery?
Download our list of 101 Things to Do Besides Eat.
And here are ten specific strategies for figuring out what to do besides eat when you’re bored. (Excerpt from chapter 3 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.)
10 Steps for What to Do About Boredom Eating
- Take out a piece of paper and make a list of activities that appeal to you using the suggestions below. Brainstorm a variety of ideas for what to do when you’re bored to ensure you’ll come up with something that will fit depending on your mood or situation.
- Write down both simple and more complex ideas, and both quick and time-consuming activities. You need both types of activities depending on how much time you have.
- Use your imagination! Have different ideas for home, work, and other settings. One of my workshop participants, an engineer, kept Legos on her desk to play with when she felt like eating.
- Choose activities that are enjoyable—or at least not unpleasant. If you’re going to make a choice to not eat, the alternative must be at least somewhat appealing.
- Be sure to have different activities to choose from, including some that meet an underlying need for something fun, interesting, or exciting to do.
- Have plenty of eating-incompatible activities on your list. These are activities that require your hands or full attention. For example, it’s difficult to eat while you’re playing the piano, building something, or sewing.
- Be sure to include a few ideas that don’t require any preparation or equipment, for example, “Take three deep breaths.”
- Choose a few activities from your list and have everything you’ll need ready to go. For instance, if you plan to play a game of solitaire, keep the cards nearby or download a solitaire app for your phone. If you’re going to try meditation, do a little reading about it ahead of time and/or download a meditation app so you know what to do. Keep a Redirection Kit or drawer in your home or office stocked with things to do—stationery, a favorite book, puzzles, tools, crafts, or anything else that appeals to you.
- Establish a “Food Free Self-Care Zone” at home and at work. Create a pleasant, comfortable space that you don’t associate with eating. If you don’t eat there, you won’t develop an association with food in that place. Drinking water, tea, or coffee there is fine. Keep your Redirection kit there so you can retreat to your Food Free Self-Care Zone until the urge to eat passes.
- Promise yourself you’ll try another activity for at least a little while, even if it is for only a few minutes at first. Although it’s easier to eat, you often stay trapped in your Overeating Cycle when you do. For example, you could say to yourself, “I’ll work on this puzzle for ten minutes, then see how I feel.” You’ll quickly learn that you can postpone eating with no adverse consequences and that will encourage you to try it again next time too.
It is important to remember that when you are bored, you’re finding something else to do beside eat because you don’t need food yet, not because you’re restricting or depriving yourself.
Remind yourself you’ll eat when you get hungry and food will taste even better then!
This article is updated from a previous version.
If you enjoyed this article, here are three more to help you: