"How can I stop emotional eating?" is a question my clients often ask me. I have one word that explains eating out of boredom, dopamine. When we're bored, our brains are not being stimulated, which causes dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain that's strongly tied to feelings of reward and pleasure, to drop. When dopamine drops, we grasp for something that will bring it back up. For many of us, that is eating. When we eat out of boredom, we have a surge of dopamine, and our brain will remember that eating brings a lot of pleasure. When we continue in that habit of eating because we are consistently bored, our brain will become less trained to experience joy from other activities. Our brain will communicate it needs food every time dopamine is low. Low dopamine becomes an issue when we suddenly feel out of control with our food choices, our weight starts climbing, and our pants fit tighter. The strategy to fix eating out of boredom is more than just more willpower. It's creating habits that give your brain that same dopamine pleasure rush. Here are eight tips for creating some boredom eating busting habits:
Eat regularly throughout the day. Keep nutrient-rich, whole foods on hand to satisfy your cravings. Sometimes eating out of boredom is a result of undereating the right kind of food earlier in the day. What are nutrient-rich foods that will bust your boredom? PROTEIN! Proteins contain amino acids like tyrosine. These amino acids have a close association with dopamine. There are enzymes in your body that can convert tyrosine to dopamine. Another amino acid called phenylalanine results in increased dopamine. Turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, and legumes are good sources of this amino acid. Try to spread your food intake throughout the day and focus on well-balanced meals with protein and colorful produce. A day of food that leaves you feeling full and satisfied for the day leaves less room for wondering whether you should have a snack when bored.
Don't restrict your favorite foods. If you're more susceptible to food cravings, depriving yourself of certain foods might make you crave them more in the short term. Rather than eliminating the foods you crave, try eating them with intention. If you know you always eat at 2:00 because you are bored, plan a 2:00 snack full of nutrients and a favorite indulgent food. An example of this might be if you get bored and always head for the chocolate chip cookies, plan to have a high-protein yogurt (my favorite is Oikos Pro Yogurt) and one chocolate chip cookie. This strategy might help reduce your urge to snack on those foods when bored, ending eating out of boredom!
Stay hydrated with water or herbal tea. Hydration helps to regulate digestion, nutrient absorption, and a healthy metabolism. You can make more intentional decisions when these body tasks function at their highest. If you are hungry and it is not mealtime, ask yourself if you could just be thirsty!
Avoid eating in front of a screen, including television, computers, and your phone. Refrain from multitasking while eating so your brain can receive the communication you have received food; it brought you joy, tasted good, and nourished your body. If you are always triggered to eat mindlessly while in front of a screen, consider replacing that habit with another activity, such as coloring, doodling, or crocheting.
Change your scenery and take a 10-minute power walk. Sometimes a tiny distraction can get your mind off food when you're bored. A change of scenery and moving your body can do wonders. Moving your body may be enough to distract your mind from food until boredom passes. There is a lot of Power in 10 minutes!
Make new habits. Take a few minutes to think about how the healthier version of you would like to spend that time that you usually reach for the chip bag. Is there a new hobby you'd like to try or an old book you never read? Schedule those habits and get consistent with them. Soon your brain will be "trained" to release dopamine for those events versus the event of eating.
Embrace being bored. Being content with boredom is the most significant barrier to overcome. It's ok to be bored. Living in a time where busyness is a sign of status, we are losing sight of being still. You don't always need to be productive or be doing something. You might find meaning in downtime by embracing boredom instead. Use this to focus on deep breathing, gratitude, and reflection.
Try this today: When the boredom of eating hits, follow this 3 step process. 1. Stand up and move. Take a 10-minute walk. 2. Chug 16 oz of water and take five deep breaths. 3. Look at or think of something that brings you joy (the plants outside, the clouds in the sky, a photo of a loved one).
If the urge to have a snack is still there, eat it following the guidance of tip two.