Ok confession time.
I once polished off a whole cake and half a pack of chocolate biscuits because I was bored eating. They were there…and then they weren’t.
Of course, I then felt incredibly guilty afterwards and spent the next 2 days berating myself for having no self-control and for sabotaging all my health goals.
You might know this vicious cycle.
Eating when I’m bored or stressed is something I’ve always struggled with. It’s just so natural to turn to the fridge or pantry for comfort when there’s nothing else to do.
But enough is enough. I wanted to stop bored eating once and for all.
After doing a lot of research and trying many different things, below are the most helpful tips I’ve found to stop bored eating.
Try the tips and see if they work for you as well as they worked for me (I’ve stopped bored eating!).
The 5 best tips to help you stop bored eating:
1) Get clear on what bored eating is costing you
My first tip is my most effective one. It pretty much stopped me bored eating overnight, as soon as I had the realisation.
The idea is that you really have to connect emotionally with what it’s costing you to bored eat (it costs you more than you think).
There’s a whole science behind it, so let me explain.
If you’ve ever read Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman you may be familiar with the concept of loss aversion.
It basically says that we humans are more motivated to avoid loss than pursue gain. This has evolutionary benefits in that losing something e.g. shelter or food can mean death, so we’ve evolved to be more motivated to protect ourselves from loss and feel worse about it.
You can use this to your advantage by really thinking about what bored eating is costing you. This isn’t really a new method and has been used in self-help literature to curb undesirable habits for decades.
For me, being healthy and making the most effective use of my time are both really important to me. Feeling guilty after an boredom eating binge is something that always happens to me. I spend hours or days afterwards feeling guilty and regretting all the unhealthy food I binged.
One day it dawned on me that not only was I eating unhealthy food and sabotaging my health goals, I was also wasting so much time being guilty after that I couldn’t focus on working towards my other goals or things that were important to me. That created a tipping point for me – where the cost of the boredom eating outweighed the gratification of fulfilling the craving in that moment.
Since that realisation – that it was a cost I wasn’t willing to pay anymore – my urge to eat when I’m feeling bored just diminished and now I hardly ever get them.
It’s weird right?
You can use the same hack by really thinking about what you are losing by boredom eating. What is it costing you? Not just now, but in the future? If you gain weight, what does that mean for your health? If you are unhealthy, what does that mean for dreams you want to pursue? Use whatever motivates you most.
Thinking this way helped me a lot. If you really connect with the emotion and understand what it’s costing you when you eat mindlessly when bored, it can act as a powerful motivator for you to change your behaviour.
2) Use non-food sources of comfort and pleasure
Our minds and bodies are constantly seeking pleasure. Eating is a way for your body to find pleasure and comfort when bored.
To divert your need to use food as a crutch, incorporate pleasure in other parts of your life. That way, the sole source isn’t coming from food.
In terms of every day, get some luxurious sheets, buy soft clothing, scatter candles in your room. Allow your body and mind to find pleasure in other ways.
One useful exercise is to prepare a list of 30 non-food related things that bring you pleasure and comfort. These are things you can do instead of snacking when bored. Some examples may include listening to music, going for a walk, reading a book, calling up a friend.
Next time you’re feeling bored, you can then whip out this list and select something to do instead of automatically heading to the fridge.
Aim to create non-food reward systems and coping mechanisms that you can fall back on whenever boredom hits.
3) Recognise the difference between real hunger and boredom hunger
To stop your bored eating habit, you need to be able to catch yourself before the act.
This allows you to make a different decision.
If you aren’t even aware that you are bored eating or about to, you’ll not be able to stop yourself or put in place any coping strategies.
Being able to recognise when you are actually physically hungry vs just experiencing cravings because you are bored is essential for this.
Below is a helpful description of physical vs emotional hunger provided by Mayo Clinic.
- Comes on suddenly
- Crave certain foods
- Not satisfied with fullness
- Feel guilt or shame
- Comes on gradually
- Open to eating any food
- Feel full and can stop eating
- Don’t feel bad
Next time you feel like you are hungry, try to use above list to identify whether it is true hunger or boredom hunger.
What’s telling for me is when my hunger comes on suddenly and it’s for a specific food. When I’m actually hungry I will eat ANYTHING. Whereas for emotional hunger, I only feel like eating chocolate or I only feel like eating pancakes.
If you recognise it as emotional hunger and that you’re about to eat because you are bored, try waiting 10 minutes before giving in to see if the urge passes.
Otherwise you can also kick-start other coping strategies like selecting a non-food activity to do instead (Tip 3) or try Surfing the urge (Tip 4).
4) Surf the Urge
Surfing the Urge is a mindfulness technique that has been shown to be very effective in dealing with unhelpful cravings.
Suppressing our cravings or otherwise trying to control them is ineffective and often backfires. This is because some part of our mind is still thinking about the craving when trying to suppress it. It can then make the craving come back stronger than ever.
In an experiment at the Addictive Behaviours Research Centre at the University of Washington, smokers who had been taught to use the Surfing the Urge technique cut back their cigarette intake by 37% after 1 week compared to those who hadn’t.
This technique can be applied to any kind of craving. When the urge to bored eat hits, instead of trying to get rid of it or distract yourself, try examine the urge head-on instead.
Examine with curiosity and without judgement, like you’re a scientist.
What thoughts are going through your head? What sensations are happening in your body? Is there tension in your jaw? Are you salivating? Is there a gnawing in your stomach?
Like a wave, all urges pass eventually whether you act on them or not. Try stay with the sensations without trying to push them away or act on them. Notice whether they fluctuate or increase in intensity.
For a really strong craving, imagine the urge as wave in the ocean. It will build in intensity but ultimately crash and dissolve. Picture yourself riding the wave, not fighting it, but also not giving in to it.
When you first practice this technique you will probably still give in to the craving so don’t use your first couple of attempts as the yard stick. Self-control builds with practice so keep practising this technique to and you will see the results.
5) Stop bored eating by removing temptation from your cupboard
If it’s not there, you’re not going to eat it.
At the supermarket, if you get the urge to buy something naughty – imagine yourself eating the whole thing. Are you ready for that commitment? If not, put it back.
I know for me, no matter how much I tell myself I’m going to pace myself and eat that packet of biscuits over several weeks, I know I will probably eat most of the packet as soon as I get home.
The 80/20 rule with food doesn’t work with me. If it’s there, I’ll eat all of it, so I try to remove that temptation completely to make life easier. You have to work with what you’ve got!
Learn to make some delicious, healthy treats for those desperate moments instead.
Even if you do end up bingeing and giving in to boredom eating, at least it will be on wholefoods that provide some nutritional benefit (vs just sugar, fat and preservatives).
There are so many delicious, healthy desserts you can make to keep ready. When I get strong chocolate cravings I make myself a hot chocolate out of cacao powder, coconut milk, vanilla essence, stevia and dust cinnamon on top. It really helps satisfy that craving in a healthier way than cake or biscuits.
I’m also obsessed with these vegan buckwheat pancakes at the moment which I add honey/maple syrup and fruit to. Have a search around and I guarantee you will find a recipe you like.
Keep these healthy treats on hand and when the urge to bored eat is too strong, at least it will be something healthy!