Anna Wootton

How do I stop myself from eating while bored?

I get this question a lot – and it made me realize: There’s a form of emotional eating that often gets shrugged off and not talked about enough: bored eating.

People laugh about it and joke about it and no one thinks it’s really all that big of a deal, or anything to worry about. And sure, seeing food as ‘something to do’ from time to time is not the end of the world.

The problem is that what we do a few times can quickly become habit. The good news is, in theory it’s easier to stop the habit of bored eating than it is to stop a habit of eating when we’re depressed or lonely or sad or happy or excited…because those are emotions, and because we all live day in and day out with our emotions, we’re not always in tune with them, so often the whole thought process that takes us from FEELING EMOTION to EATING FOOD is subconscious and we aren’t even aware of it until we’re halfway through that tub of ice cream and we stop and think, “Oh right, this is me emotionally eating again. I’m not supposed to be doing that anymore.”

While it’s not impossible to stop emotional eating habits (and it’s a lot easier when you work with someone to meet these goals), it does take a lot of hard work at being willing to really analyze and sit with difficult emotions and feelings we may have suppressed (through food, yes, but also other means) over a long period of time.

Bored eating is much more habitual. As in, it’s purely down to habits and less down to emotions (this is not always the case, so bear with me).

Habits are easier to break and make when they’re not rooted in emotional distress. For example, smoking is technically a habit but most people smoke for social reasons or for stress relief etc. So in that sense, it’s a habit but it’s tough to break because of all of the emotional ties it’s linked to.

So consider this: are you really just a bored eater, or are you a bored emotional eater? The first will be easier to stop, but to be honest you can conquer both. Your approach would need to be different, though.

My emotional eating started as a bored eater – I’ve been one since childhood, because, as both a picky eater as a child and then, in my teenage years, becoming a real foodie, I’ve always found food interesting. I enjoy cooking, baking, entertaining, dining, tasting, smelling. For someone who isn’t that interested in food, when they’re bored they will likely think of other things to do first. For someone with a fascination with food, the fridge will be the first place their brain goes when they’re bored at home.

My emotional eating took off from there because, thanks to my habit of bored eating, food was constantly at the forefront of my mind. That’s how it became a method of self-medicating for my emotions – because it was honestly the first thing I thought of. People who love wine might think of wine first, people who love working out may be obsessive about running. Obviously some of these seem healthier but really, relying on outward actions to avoid inner thoughts is a bad habit that we could all do with breaking.

A bored eater seriously just needs distractions. You need to write a list, now, of five things you can do when you find yourself twiddling your thumbs and thinking of checking out the fridge. Post that list of other activities right there on your fridge door, where you cannot miss it. That way, when you next go to open the fridge you will see the list and be forced to ask yourself: “Am I hungry or bored?” If the answer is the latter, you choose one of the activities on the list and go and distract yourself with that instead.

I’m making it sound much simpler than it is. Habits are habits, after all, and it probably will feel much easier, more convenient and more comfortable to continue opening the fridge, because it’s what you’ve always done when bored. It will take willpower and determination to change your habits the first few times. But they say that if you can stick with it for a few weeks (reports vary between three and six weeks) then you will have broken an old habit and formed a new one. Give it a try.

If you are a bored emotional eater, though, likely you are heading to the fridge because if you are bored, you have time to think. And thinking leads to feeling. And if you are avoiding those feelings, you will seek distractions. In this situation, the list approach is likely not to work, not unless you choose activities that make you feel happy – in the same way that food gives you that ‘high’ – so you can once again banish those negative feelings threatening to come to the surface. I’m sorry to tell you, but the only way to really overcome this is to work through the murky feelings and get them out. Otherwise they will always be there! And every time you try to resist the fridge you will have to go through the same battle, over and over again.

The good news is my approach is all about bringing lightness to your life, in order to get rid of the darkness. A lot of therapy and emotional work sounds scary and intimidating because it’s all about dredging up the darkness you work so hard to avoid. Of course we don’t want to do that. Instead, my approach is all about bringing lightness into your life so your life is so full that when you come to deal with the darkness, it’s no match for all the bright surrounding you. It’s much the same as the advice I give people who want to go vegetarian. Don’t start by cutting out the meat. Start instead by adding in all the new and exciting foods you will eat more of as a vegetarian. By the time you come to eliminate the meat, you will be enjoying such varied new foods you won’t even miss what you’re cutting out! You see how this approach works differently?

For more on my approach and how you can benefit from it, click here.