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How To STOP Boredom Hunger

By Melody Coleman

London-based personal trainer, swim coach and founder of the Body Project, Melody Coleman writes for some of the UK's leading fitness magazines and nutrition providersRead more.

Boredom hunger is a diet demon that many of us struggle with on a daily basis. It creeps up when we least expect it. Sudden, uncontrollable urges to eat mindlessly can strike at home, work, when travelling, or anywhere else, and often there's no resisting temptation. 

Even for those with willpower strong enough to withstand powerful cravings like these; it's an unpleasant experience to say the least. Chocolates, crisps, and other huge portions of food can be devoured in the space of minutes as a result of our brains' mindless attempts to compensate for a lack of stimulating activities.

Boredom hunger can affect any person, at any time. For those of us making a conscious effort to eat well for health, body composition, or performance, this is a real issue. 

Let's explore the reasons lurking behind this common gripe, in order to determine how we can take ownership over our food choices, and enjoy a better lifestyle for our minds and bodies. 

Whilst it's well known that humans and other creatures do eat for pleasure, the fact remains that the primary purpose of food is physical sustenance. How does it come about that our mood, location and sensory influences can stimulate the urge to stuff our faces with the things we crave (or whatever happens to be immediately available)?

During periods of boredom, or other emotional discomfort, our bodies can convince us that we need to eat, regardless of any physiological requirement for nutrition. This nutritional phenomenon is the result of mock hunger signals from our bodies as a response to specific emotional or physical cues.

A range of factors play a part in why and how we convince ourselves that we're hungry, including feelings of boredom or sadness, learned eating habits or patterns, and physical triggers such as advertisements or particular locations. These factors can be categorised into three groups: physical, physiological, and emotional triggers. For example:

How To Stop Boredom Hunger

Physical:

  • Specific locations associated with food and eating
  • People, their actions, and social influences
  • Particular events such as a trip to the cinema or night in with friends
  • Bright packaging and evocative advertising 
  • Seeing or smelling food

Physiological:

Physiological Reasons
  • Routine eating times recognised by the body
  • Eating habits and rituals
  • Hormones related to stress or monthly cycles
  • The body's hunger responses and reactions to undereating or overeating

Emotional:

Any personal emotion that results in unhealthy, unwanted eating or bingeing... 

Scientific studies show that recognising and understanding emotional triggers are key elements in breaking unwanted boredom eating habits. In 2009, Adriaanse et al conducted a pilot study into personally relevant reasons for unhealthy eating.

In short, they found that when making dietary changes for the better, rather than focussing on the "what"s and "where"s causing people to eat unhealthily, it was more effective to implement changes with a focus on "why" people snacked and binged when experiencing emotional cues: 

"Results showed that implementation intentions specifying motivational cues decreased unhealthy snack consumption whereas the classic specification of where and when did not. Extending previous research, for complex behavior change “why” seems more important than “where and when.”(Adriaanse, M.A., et al, 2009)

Eating For Emotional Reasons

These findings reflect the good advice of expert nutritionists and health coaches, who view boredom eating patterns as a cycle. Physical factors, for example an advert for a chocolate bar, elicit a physiological response, such as salivation (the mouth-watering).

This is associated with either conscious or unconscious thoughts or beliefs like "I really fancy a chocolate bar". Rather than avoiding advertising, or trying to control complex physiological processes, the cycle can be broken by recognising and understanding the resulting emotions. 

Listen to your body, and eat intuitively

When the mood strikes, rather than mindlessly running to the fridge or nearest shop, pause for a moment, and try asking yourself the following questions. 

Eat Intutively
  1. Am I physically, or emotionally hungry? Physical hunger is accompanied by an empty or rumbling feeling in the stomach, or even hunger pangs. Emotional eating is not characterised by any digestive symptoms. 
  2. Why do I feel like I need to eat? Think back - have you seen or heard something that triggered these thoughts? Is it simply a habit that you don't consciously question?
  3. Am I procrastinating, avoiding tasks or masking negative emotions? You'll have to face up to these things and deal with them at some point. Only once you've done this will you feel better. 
  4. Will eating now make me feel better about my emotions in both the short term and long term?
  5. Is there something more fulfilling that I can be doing? Remind yourself of the benefits of a healthy and nutritious lifestyle on your bodily processes, including those that manage hormones and stress. 

Remember that any imagined need for impulsive eating is temporary, but a diet that makes your body happy will promote longevity and improvements in mood and performance. Whether you end up boredom eating or not, the fact that you've stopped to ask yourself these questions is a step in the right direction. 

It's important for both physical and mental wellbeing not only that we listen to our body and eat intuitively based on what it needs, but also that we respond, rather than react, to what we realise when we really pay attention. Be curious in your journey to discovering the reasons behind your unhealthy eating, and kind to yourself when you reach the answers. You're only human, after all. 

Set yourself up for success

Plan to succeed, but keep it flexible! Overly strict regimes can be hard to stick to, and often don't match our bodies' ever-changing requirements. Here are my top tips to give you the best chance of maintaining a healthy, happy life:

- Get some semi-regular meal times locked in. After a while, your body will become conditioned to eat only at these times, making you less likely to snack. Grazers (people who eat little and often) and nutritional freestylers experience hunger at random points throughout the day, and often eat without thinking

- Understand the effects of what you're eating on your body. From experience, I know that those who have predominantly carbs for breakfast are hungrier much sooner than those who consume a morning meal filled with protein. If your pasta-heavy lunch is causing you to become sluggish and in need of a sugar fix around mid-afternoon, try something different, and notice the effects. Make intelligent decisions, and have at least a rough guide of what you're going to eat based on your planned activities for the day

Set Yourself Up For Success

- Don't keep your go-to binge or boredom foods around. If they're harder to reach, you have more time to think about whether or not you really need them at any given moment;

- Eat plenty of fibre. It slows the digestion process, affording your gut more time to absorb all available nutrients from anything you eat, over a longer period of time

- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can easily be confused for hunger or tiredness, and contributes to a lower mood in general. Being hydrated and happier leaves you with a better chance of sticking to lovely, nutritious foods

- Get enough sleep. I can't stress this enough - 6 hours is not enough sleep! We make poor food choices when we're hungry, opting for higher-calorie, high-sugar options to make up for dampened focus and alertness

The message here really is to stay mindful of your emotions and triggers, to make the best of any given situation, and not to beat yourself up for your "failures"! Rome wasn't built in a day, and your journey of learning and practising how to follow your ideal way of life is your own. 

To be clear, not for a second am I saying don't eat snacks, or enjoy the occasional "naughty" food item or experience. The key is to make your body happy with the relevant nutrition, and when the time is right, really savour the less nutritious stuff as a treat, rather than an escape or distraction. 

We can't necessarily stop "boredom hunger" from occurring, but the act of boredom eating doesn't need to result from this feeling. Gain a deeper understanding, and find something more meaningful to do if you're really at a loose end. Read a book, make a phone call, paint, run or learn something new. Just enjoy life to its fullest, every day. 

Melody Coleman

About Melody

London-based personal trainer, swim coach and founder of the Body Project, Melody Coleman writes for some of the UK's leading fitness magazines and nutrition providers, educating and inspiring people to take control of their health and fitness.

When she's not trying out fun new fitness-related activities, Melody is helping her clients learn to move properly in order to transform their bodies, rehabilitate from injury and maximise their sporting performance.

An expert in the field of movement, Melody takes a friendly, no-bull approach encompassing all aspects of fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle to yield impressive results across a range of clientele.

Follow Melody's unrelenting mission to empower people by sharing her specialist experience on Facebook and Instagram, and check out her client testimonials and personal blog at bodyprojectpt.com.

References

Adriaanse, M.A., et al. (2009). Finding the Critical Cue: Implementation Intentions to Change One's Diet Work Best When Tailored to Personally Relevant Reasons for Unhealthy Eating.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin [online], Vol 35 (1), 60-71. Available at: http://psp.sagepub.com/content/35/1/60.short [Accessed 22 Jun. 2016]

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