I Eat Because... I'm Bored

You're not alone. Our survey reveals many people try to combat boredom by snacking.

In The Essence of Boredom, William L. Mikulas and Stephen J. Vodanovich define boredom as: "A state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction, which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating situation."

That's a lot of fancy words to say that boredom is what happens when your mind feels a bit 'meh' because you're stuck doing something that isn't interesting to you.

Explore below to discover why we eat out of boredom, what the types of boredom are, and how to stop eating because you're bored…

Our survey shows there are lots of reasons why people eat that go far beyond simple hunger…

29%
eat because they need energy to fight lethargy and combat tiredness
38%
eat because they have a craving and a sudden urge to eat a specific food
25%
eat because they are stressed and eating makes them feel better – learn more about how stress impacts eating behaviour
28%
eat because they are in a social situation and feel like they have to eat the food on offer
Food for thought

But boredom eclipses every other reason, with the majority of respondents admitting that they eat out of that familiar feeling of 'relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction'…

Food for thought

58% of women eat more out of boredom, compared to 38% of men

50%

eat when they're not hungry because they're bored

48%

eat beyond being full because of boredom

45%

of people aged 55 and over are least likely to eat out of boredom

57%

18-24 year olds are most likely to turn to the fridge out of boredom than any other age group

The science of boredom

However you break it down, the results show that many of us have eaten due to being bored. So why do we reach for snacks when we're bored? And how can we combat this pesky psychological habit?

There are five types of boredom, according to Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz, Germany:

1
Indifferent

Relaxed, slightly tired, overall cheerful but indifferent. Think ploughing through a bag of crisps while watching TV.

2
Calibrating

Wondering thoughts, slight restlessness, and uncertainty about what to do to combat the feeling. This might mean you visit the kitchen to cycle through the cupboard for snacks.

3
Searching

Actively seeking an alternative to their current behaviour, such as different hobbies. You might find yourself heading to the kitchen for a sandwich even though you're not hungry.

4
Reactant

Feeling very unhappy and trapped in the situation causing the boredom. Like overeating goodies your colleagues have brought to work.

5
Apathetic

Causing feelings of depression and complete lack of emotion, neither positive or negative. This could mean bouts of binge eating, perhaps in an attempt to feel in control.

To fully understand why we eat when we're bored, we also need to consider 'counterintentional habits'. As identified by researchers and writers Bas Verplanken and Suzanne Faes, 'counterintentional habits' are things we do in the moment that make us feel better in the short term, but ultimately go against the long-term goals and expectations we have set for ourselves. For example:

  • Driving recklessly, even though you know it's dangerous.
  • Wasting time scrolling through social media, even though you have a list of things to be doing.
  • Snacking on unhealthy food, even though you're trying to lose weight.

So we know on a psychological level we have a tendency to forget our long-term goals in favour of short-term satisfaction. And when we're bored, the urge to satisfy ourselves can feel overwhelming, which is why many turn to food.

Charlotte Stirling-Reed has lots of experience with clients who struggle to avoid snacking when experiencing boredom:

Many clients find that boredom eating can become a real problem. I think it's great to try and break it down into different types of boredom, which may help people find solutions to this other than food. Bear in mind that eating when we are bored isn't a problem, however if this becomes a habit, it can result in us regularly eating more than we need.

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

I am a big fan of finding other ways to stimulate ourselves and our brain. Going for a walk, calling a friend, and reading a book are great ways to combat boredom. But remember to recognise when boredom turns into hunger – if you're really hungry, the feeling is unlikely to go away if you distract yourself with something else.

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

Previously clients I've worked with have found that they eat because they are bored or automatically veer into the kitchen when they are a bit fed up. This can soon become a habit that is hard to break.

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

Find your boredom

The reasons you eat when bored depend on the type of boredom you're experiencing. We've discussed the five types above, here's how they can trigger an urge to eat and snack.

Find your boredom to figure out how to combat boredom eating!

  • 1 Indifferent
  • 2 Calibrating
  • 3 Searching
  • 4 Reactant
  • 5 Apathetic

You feel relaxed and satisfied, but bored with the situation that you're in. You might not even realise that you're actually bored, just mentally checked out.

The science

You eat to pass the time and entertain yourself until the situation has ended.

Example

You're at work and finished your tasks for the day. There's an hour until you can leave, so you snack mindlessly as an enjoyable activity until the day ends.

Solution

Occupy your mind by doing something else. Try going for a short walk, starting a new project or task, or even just getting up to make a cup of tea. Also, make sure you've had a decent lunch and topped up with a snack mid-afternoon so you're not feeling too hungry just before you leave work.

You don't feel very relaxed – in fact, you feel restless. However, you're not sure what you'd rather be doing, you just know you don't want to be in your current situation.

The science

As you search for what you want to do to combat the boredom, you might eat to feel satisfied and to halt the restlessness.

Example

You're at home with no plans. You make regular trips to the fridge or cupboard just snacking to feel like you've accomplished something.

Solution

If you're not hungry, chances are the restlessness won't be cured by eating. Find an alternative activity to entertain yourself, such as exercising or ticking some chores off your to-do list. If you're still hungry afterwards, opt for something substantial and ensure you sit down to eat it without distractions, rather than mindlessly grazing on foods from the fridge.

You're bored, you know why, and you know what you'd rather be doing. Unfortunately, you don't have the option to do it – you're stuck.

The science

Because you're stuck in a boring situation, unable to do what you want to do, you might reach for food as a means of control.

Example

You might be at an event that you didn't want to attend but had no option but to go. You turn to food as a way of passing the time, or to give you some enjoyment that you otherwise wouldn't have.

Solution

This is a classic example of ignoring long-term goals in favour of a hedonist short-term behaviour. Remind yourself of your goals before snacking and remember your current situation will come to an end. Or you could try and opt for foods such as nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and a cup of tea to help the time pass. Remember, if it's a one-off occasion, snacking is not a problem, so if you're really pining for the free ice creams or a bag of crisps, don't deprive yourself. If it becomes a regular thing however, you might want to think about taking something extra to do or even something to snack on from home.

You're actually pretty annoyed at being stuck in a boring situation. You might even feel angry at the situation.

The science

Because some of us eat as a means of reward, choosing a snack when you're reactant bored could boost your mood and make you feel more positive.

Example

This is a common boredom for children and teenagers. Think of a teenager stuck in an unfulfilling classroom environment, resentful that they're there. They might turn to food to make themselves happy.

Solution

Being stuck in a situation that feels this stressful is infuriating, so you need to resolve the source of the issue before you'll feel better. Eating simply to make yourself feel better can result in a somewhat negative relationship with food – visit the 'I eat because I'm stressed' page to learn more.

You feel depressed, not angry, sad, or happy. You're an emotional blank slate.

The science

Repetitive boredom could suppress your ability to feel anything at all, which could quickly turn into depression. Food may be the only source that provides you with any feeling.

Example

You go through repeated cycles of binge eating, perhaps late at night, in an attempt to distract yourself from the way you feel.

Solution

Eating to combat depression can lead to eating disorders. Consider visiting your GP to discuss this issue if you regularly eat to combat depressive episodes.