When I wrote about boredom in The Food and Feelings Workbook, I didn’t understand scientifically why we seek food when we feel bored. I only knew that it was an automatic reaction that often occurred when dysregulated eaters had nothing to do or were disengaged from what they were doing. Fast forward 10 years and science can explain why that happens.
The findings of a preliminary study on boredom and eating were presented at the British Psychology Society’s annual meeting and I read about them in HealthDay (If You're Craving Cookies, You Might Just Be Bored). Here’s what was said by the study’s lead investigator, Sandi Mann of the University of Central Lancashire: "These results are in line with previous research suggesting that we crave fatty and sugary foods when we are bored. This strengthens the theory that boredom is related to low levels of the stimulating brain chemical dopamine and that people try to boost this by eating fat and sugar if they cannot alleviate their boredom in some other way." She went on to say that “…this information could be helpful for people designing public health campaigns. If they want to encourage healthier food choices, they need ‘to take boredom, including boredom in the workplace, into account. Bored people do not eat nuts.’”
This conclusion makes perfect sense when you think of what we know about how dopamine improves our mood. We get a dopamine rush from pleasurable fantasies, sex, ingesting certain substances, and from other feel-good activities. We might not notice the rush or even identify that we’re feeling high on life, but many things we do trigger dopamine. This triggering is often tied to biological imperatives which have an evolutionary purpose like eating or sex, or any activities that boost pleasure.
Mental and physical signs of boredom include inattentiveness, restlessness, a desire to stop what you’re doing and perhaps do something else, fatigue, or a longing for stronger engagement or connection. Perhaps you miss those signals of boredom and only tune into the urge for an edible pick-me-up. Next time you have the desire to eat when you’re not hungry, check in with yourself to see if you’re bored. Remind yourself how good you’ll feel when a task is done or you start and finish it. Tell yourself that even if you seek food, you can’t escape life’s unpleasant tasks. Or take an intentional short break and do something enjoyable so you return to your task at hand refreshed. Learn how to manage boredom effectively and see if you notice a reduction in mindless eating.