It’s day number 467512 of quarantine, otherwise known as Wednesday, and where do I find myself yet again? In front of the fridge for the umpteenth time and it’s not even lunch yet. As I search every crevice for hidden snacks, a thought comes to mind, “Are you even hungry?” My full internal body scan commences to find the answer to this question. Growling stomach? No. Thirst masquerading as hunger? No. Do I just want something tasty? Yes. The results came in with a resounding, “No, you’re not.” So long leftover pizza.
Why is the fridge, all of a sudden, the most interesting thing in my house (other than Netflix)? The answer is simple:
Unbridled, limitless boredom. As a nutrition professor, the connection between emotions and eating are central to my work with people aiming to make healthy eating changes. Sometimes stress leads people to eat more than usual or lose their appetite altogether. Joy and happiness are often accompanied by a smorgasbord. In those throws of emotion, no one I know reaches for carrots and hummus. Boredom, is no exception, and likely the reason behind why you and I may be eating more these days.
Boredom is a state of many dimensions. Psychological evidence describes boredom as a state where one might feel a lack of an ability to take action, restless or irritable, tired and unchallenged (Elpidorou, 2018, VanTilburg, 2012). Importantly, boredom has a function. It tells us that we are in a less than interesting situation and promotes our escape to something more interesting (Elpidorou, 2018).
We Are Hardwired to Eat
So boredom has you thinking about getting a snack. The moment we start thinking of whatever we’re craving and our mouths begin watering food, digestion has begun. Mouths are the entryways of the digestive tract. Once that snack meets your tastebuds, chemical and mechanical digestion occurs. Our teeth break food down into smaller bits, while enzymes in our saliva kick-off the chemical digestion of food. The pleasure we get from food makes total sense. We are kind of hard-wired to eat, so just saying no to food can be a challenge. Nowadays, eating is more an activity that breaks up the monotony and boredom of my seemingly similar days at home. However, our challenge, as a nation with abundant food, is that food is all around us all the time, and that can make it hard to limit ourselves. It is perfectly human to eat more than we need or not as healthfully as we intended at any given moment.
It is not a big deal to have those extra snacks right now. After all, this is a bit of a stressful time and eating more due to boredom (citation) or stress (citation) is not uncommon. So if you are feeling like, “man, I really didn’t need to eat that”, give yourself some grace and space to reflect. Beating yourself up won’t lead to better food choices, so just take a breadth, acknowledge the moment for what it was and live your life. Just a note: If you’re noticing those moments of overeating followed by bouts of beating yourself up happening quite often, it may be time for a check-in with a food professional.
Are You Bored or Are You Hungry?
So, I find myself standing in front of the fridge searching for a delicious encounter. Unfortunately, past me stuck to my grocery game plan and I see only wholesome stuff staring back at me. Not exactly the fatty, salty, sweet snack perfection I was hoping for. In that moment of searching, I took a mental step back to evaluate my hunger level: What was I really looking for? The truth is, not food, but rather something to do.
The fridge, now always in our sights, is a reminder that food is available — a signal that a quick fix for boredom is accessible. That can be hard to resist. Remember that moment I had between searching and realizing that I wasn’t really hungry? That is a learned behavior — a habit even.
Tuning Into Your True Hunger and Proper Fullness
While it takes time to build a new habit, to reduce boredom-eating tie a simple action to your fridge visit. Before you open it, ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” The answer can range from “I could eat” to hangry. Feeling “full” occurs way before you feel like you just stuffed yourself at Thanksgiving. It’s that moment when you’re no longer hungry, but not overstuffed and uncomfortable. For many, it has been a while since you may have tuned in to true hunger or proper fullness, so give yourself some time to start recognizing that again. Over time you will get to know your hunger patterns well and truly tell if boredom is driving you to eat. Next time you find yourself staring into the food abyss, take thirty seconds to ask why.
Helpful questions to ask yourself
- What is my hunger level? Is my stomach silent, beginning to growl, full-on growling, or starting a hunger headache?
- In the absence of any growling, what am I feeling right now? Check those emotions and what you may truly be feeding other than physical hunger.
- Is this starting to become a pattern, connected actions that I repeat throughout the day or week?
After realizing that boredom, not hunger pulled me to the fridge, I took my own advice. Reluctantly, I close the fridge full of promise. I do a little dance, because what else do you do in your kitchen when no one’s watching and cabin fever is setting in? I pet the cat for being a great audience and proceed to bother my husband who has no interest in my failed snack expedition. As I people watch near-empty streets, I long for the days when going out to dinner was not a health-sacrificing event. When this is all over, we will dine. Our boredom will be replaced with the joy of good company as we break bread together.
In the meantime use these quiet times to become acquainted with your own hunger. Identifying true hunger is all about tuning in your body’s signals. For many people I have worked with, this is an unfamiliar concept that takes some work. We now have the time, so take it, and I promise you will get there.