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We’ve all been there. You’re doing an assignment, replying to emails or watching tv, when suddenly you find yourself reaching for the snacks (Salt and vinegar chips, anyone?). You’re not even really hungry, you’re just bored! This is quite a well-known phenomenon. But why does it happen?

A 2015 study found that boredom led to unhealthy eating habits, as it distracted from the unpleasant experience of being, well, bored! The study involved keeping a diary to measure the relationship between boredom and unhealthy eating. The results showed that boredom was associated with a greater intake of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Meaning, the more bored you feel, the more you eat. More often than not, the food we reach for is unhealthy and energy dense. This behaviour is a type of emotional eating.

Emotional eating is when a person reaches for food several times a week, or more, to suppress and/or soothe negative feelings. They will usually experience guilt or shame after the binge, leading to a cycle of excess eating and associated issues like weight gain. This can be caused by emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is when you think you are hungry, due to stress, happiness or even boredom. This is very different to true hunger. True hunger starts gradually and will usually be satisfied by any type of food. Once satisfied, you have the power to stop eating and not feel guilt or shame afterwards.

There are many ways to stop boredom/emotional eating. The main step is to realise that you’re not actually hungry: you’re really, in fact, just bored. So, to prevent this, keep yourself busy. Go to the gym, read a book, listen to a podcast, call a friend, do the laundry, get out of the house or anything else other than what’s making you bored.

If you’ve tried altering your lifestyle and still find it difficult to break your boredom/emotional eating cycle, try and replace those unhealthy snacks with healthier ones. Turn those chips and chocolates into apples, carrots, celery and hummus dip. So now, when you’re bored you’ll be eating carrots dipped in hummus! YUM! This will help you physically, and also mentally.

Interestingly, when we’re bored, we don’t eat because it’s a pleasurable experience. We eat simply to break the boredom. A study recruited participants and showed them a boring clip (85 seconds of indoor tennis on loop) for an hour. Throughout the clip, some participants were given M&M’s. Others received a device that could be used to self-administer painful electric shocks. Both options were quite popular, surprisingly. Anyway, the results showed that people eat when they are bored to break the monotony, not for the pleasure of food itself.

The bottom line is that everyone eats when they’re bored, even if they don’t realise it. But this can be a problem if it happens often and you’re eating tons of junk. So, the next time you’re feeling bored and catch yourself reaching for snacks, drink water, do something interesting or substitute with healthy snacks. Good luck!