How to stop eating when you’re bored

Man snacking in front of laptop

Unhealthy eating habits – be gone! There are ways you can turn those unhealthy habits into a thing of the past!  We’re here to tell you how.

When you’re feeling bored, does your mind start to wander over to all the snacks you’ve got tucked away in your pantry? Ever gone rummaging through the fridge for a snack, just for something to do? Well, you’re definitely not alone – but left unchecked, eating out of boredom can become a very unhealthy habit. 

Niamh Scully, a Senior Public Health Nutritionist, says there’s a simple reason that we crave snacks when we’re lacking stimulation and it comes down to boredom and distraction. 

“Nobody likes feeling bored,” Niamh says. “It’s an unpleasant feeling and so to distract ourselves from that feeling, we look for something to relieve it. Food is often something we turn to because it’s enjoyable and easy – we open our cupboard and it’s there, or we grab a snack when out. But in these cases, we’re not eating to satisfy our hunger – we are eating to satisfy an emotion, and that’s how we can develop an unhealthy relationship with food.”

Clinical psychologist Kate O’Connor says that when we eat out of boredom, it’s rarely out of any real hunger for the food itself. 

“Eating often comes from a longing, or a need, that’s being projected onto food,” Kate explains. “You’re essentially thinking, ‘I need something, and I’m going to choose this food item because it’s easily available’. You’re reading that need as a hunger for food, rather than a need for something else. 

“I think we’ve been conditioned to find solutions for our discomfort, our boredom and our emotional problems and food is an example of that – it’s something outside of us that we can go and get and have. That blueprint is what we’re used to relying on to solve our problems, rather than going inward and seeing what might actually be going on with us.” 

In a sense, our brains have also been hardwired to reach for sugary snacks when we’re looking for a pick-me-up.  

“There is a chemical messenger that’s released in our brains, in response to stimulation that comes from sugary snacks, called dopamine, which makes us feel happy and excited,” Niamh says. “When we’re bored, our dopamine levels are low, and when we eat, it raises those levels so we feel good. Who hasn’t felt good after having a delicious meal? The problem is that junk foods raise our dopamine levels very quickly, because they tend to be high in sugar, fat and sodium, but then those levels drop just as quickly and we’re left feeling unsatisfied again.” 

Boredom and snacking can quickly become a vicious cycle – especially when we’re working from home, close to the pantry or fridge, and engaging in less incidental activity through the day. 

“If you’re snacking mindlessly out of boredom instead of hunger, or to distract you from a task you aren’t keen on doing, and you’re having those snacks on top of your main meals, then you’re most likely overeating,” Niamh says. “And if you’re not balancing that with adequate exercise, there’s a chance that you’re going to start putting on weight.” 

Luckily, if you recognise that you’ve developed an unhealthy eating habit, you can start to change it. Here are a few steps you can take to stop eating out of boredom. 

Identify your cues 

It’s important to take note of the situations that lead you to eat out of boredom, because everybody is different. Nothing is inherently ‘boring’ – different things are boring to different people. 

“A good start is to acknowledge that you’re not actually hungry, and you’re just eating to relieve an unpleasant feeling, or to distract yourself from another task,” Niamh says. “By recognising this you’ve already taken some control. Then, identify what your boredom triggers are, by keeping a diary or a journal. Note down when you feel bored, and what has happened to make you feel that way, recognising that food is not always going to relieve that feeling, in the long term.”    

Kate agrees that it’s important to be aware of these triggers. “I think there can be a lot of power in taking note of what we’re feeling, when we’re in that kind of cycle,” she says. “Even if you just pause and ask yourself, ‘How do I really feel here? What am I really hungry for?’ Maybe you eat the snack anyway, but it cultivates a different cycle and creates a different blueprint within yourself by bringing attention to, and being mindful of, that dynamic. It might not cause an immediate stop to the behaviour, but it might open up new possibilities around what the need is that’s actually causing the problem.” 

If you have to snack, snack healthy 

Niamh stresses that it’s best to avoid eating out of boredom altogether. “Even if the snacks you are eating are healthy, you don’t want to build up the habit of eating when you don’t need to.”

“The best thing you can do is limit your snacks and ensure your main meals are high in protein and fibre so they make you feel fuller for a longer period of time. Start the day with a healthy and filling breakfast that includes some protein such as eggs, low fat yoghurt or lean meats. Make sure you’ve got vegetables in every meal, and if you’re eating rice and bread, make sure it’s wholegrain.”

At the same time, it’s important to be realistic – ‘snackcidents’ are going to happen, and when they do, it’s best that the snacks are healthy. Niamh’s suggestions include: 

  • Veggie sticks with hummus
  • Apple slices or celery sticks with nut butter or peanut butter 
  • Air-popped popcorn 
  • Natural or low fat yoghurt with berries 
  • Cottage cheese with pineapple
  • Hard boiled egg 
  • Roasted chickpeas 
  • Fruits, especially those with the skin intact (preserving the fibre)
  • Mixed nuts, such as almonds and pistachios 

“Make sure they’re protein-rich or high fibre snacks that fill you up and keep you full for longer,” Niamh says, “so they’re not the sorts of foods you can just eat and eat and eat without feeling full.”

Reach for a glass of water instead 

We all need to drink more water – so next time you find your idle hands reaching for a snack just for something to do, try pouring yourself a glass of H2O instead. 

“We sometimes mistake thirst for hunger, so you might just need to have a glass of water,” Niamh says. “Keep your water close at hand, and your snacks somewhere that’s not as easily accessible. In other words, make drinking water easy and snacking hard.”

Of course, a glass of water might not have the same zing to it as a sugary snack, but Niamh says there are ways to liven it up a little. 

“You can make water more attractive by adding whatever type of fruit you like to it,” she says. “You could add some lemons, some berries, a little bit of cucumber; maybe a hint of mint. Otherwise, you could go for a nice herbal tea – even the distraction of getting up and making that could be enough to relieve you from boredom.”  

Find another way to relieve your boredom 

Eating and drinking aren’t the only thing we can do to distract ourselves when we’re bored. Niamh suggests finding an alternative way to raise your dopamine levels. 

“What is it you enjoy doing, other than snacking?” she asks. “You have to recognise what it is that makes you feel stimulated and happy. Exercise might be your thing, so you could go for a walk or a run. Perhaps a walk around the block in the middle of the day, or going out and doing a spot of gardening. Find what you enjoy doing that takes a short amount of time, that will help you get over that boredom hump and delay you reaching for food. It might be a little bit of yoga, meditation, listening to music, reading… whatever fits into your day.

“Then you can wait out that craving for a snack, and take the time to consider whether you’re really hungry, or whether you just wanted to eat because you were bored and food was the first thing that came to mind.”

Still craving a snack? Niamh suggests one other way to distract yourself. 

“A very simple thing you can do is brush your teeth,” she says. “Stand up from the couch or from your desk and go and brush your teeth. We often have food left in our mouths from our last meal, and sometimes it’s just the feeling of that food that makes us think about eating. And then once you’ve brushed your teeth and you’ve got that toothpaste taste in your mouth, that snack might not be so appealing, anyway.” 

Get to the root of the problem 

Ultimately, any ‘distraction’ you find from boredom is just that – a distraction. And while some may be healthier than others, Kate O’Connor points out that no distraction will address the root cause of your boredom. 

“When we say, ‘I’m bored’, it’s often a blanket for some other emotional thing that’s going on,” Kate says. “It’s not just about a lack of input – there’s dissatisfaction there, a frustration, a pain, a sadness, a loneliness, an anger that is underneath, or something else that we’re hungry for.

“I think the risk of trying to distract yourself away from the problem, or using sheer willpower to stop snacking, is that you just redirect your focus to something else that is external and isn’t the thing you really need.

“If you are chronically bored, or chronically unhappy in some other way that’s manifesting as eating when you’re not hungry, then getting to the bottom of what’s happening is crucial. That will be a much more satisfying solution than tricking yourself or distracting yourself away from that impulse in the short term. Otherwise, you’re just left policing yourself forever.” 

Kate says that what we interpret as ‘boredom’ can often be the result of another emotion altogether. 

“I think sometimes boredom is actually fear or frustration – which can also be very similar to procrastination,” she says. “If it’s covering up an avoidance mechanism, there might be another way you can treat yourself kindly while addressing what you’re afraid of, rather than using the decoy of snacking. 

“There can be something quite powerful in meeting yourself in the truth of how you really feel; in being able to acknowledge, ‘Oh, this situation is actually freaking me out’, or, ‘I’m really overwhelmed or unhappy here’, and allowing yourself to feel that, rather than being immediately distracted or sedated by a behavioural thing like snacking. 

“That could be a simple process of just asking yourself what’s troubling you and dealing with it. But if it’s a long-term or systemic problem, it might be something you bring up with a therapist… it might seem like a very minor thing to be snacking thoughtlessly, but it could be a hook into a deeper issue.”

If you are concerned about your snacking or would like nutrition and dietary advice, talk to your doctor who may refer you to a health professional to support you. You can also self-refer to a dietitian, and can find an Accredited Practising Dietitian near you. 

The Get Healthy Information and Coaching Service is available for Queenslanders over the age of 16 years. It provides a free and confidential telephone coaching service to help you reach your healthy goals relating to healthy eating, physical activity and reaching and achieving a healthy weight.