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How To Not Eat When Bored: Targeting The Root Of Emotional Eating

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Last updated on July 10, 2020

Here’s your typical advice to not eat when bored:

  • Go on a walk
  • Call a friend
  • Eat plenty of protein / fat

Fair enough. The above advice is good, and I’m sure you’ve tried similar strategies before to avoid reaching into the salty bag of Kettle chips and eating your feelings.  

I’m also betting that despite the number of times you’ve strolled around the block or listened to music instead of giving into your food cravings, you are still struggling with boredom eating.  You’re eating emotionally, trying to get rid of those feelings of boredom.

It turns out that the frequently touted self-care advice you hear like “go on a walk” or”journal” is only part of the solution to not eat when bored. 

You need to also target the root of emotional eating. Your self-care activities (like walking, journaling, music, friends, etc) need to heal the core of emotional eating.

You can walk around the block all you want, but if you fail to meet the core needs underlying the emotional eating you’ll never be able to stop eating when bored.

For me, I lived for 13 months in a monastery doing meditation everyday. I thought I was doing the healing work, but in fact, I was missing the target regarding emotional eating. 

Back then I didn’t know how to target the root of emotional eating, nor understand how to measure if the activities I was doing were actually working. 

I was ‘meditating’ but it wasn’t working for dealing with eating issues because I didn’t know how to target the root or see if I ‘hit’ the target.

I’ve learned a lot since then….

If you’re looking to go deep and address the underlying causes of boredom eating, then you’re in the right spot!

You can think of this Eating Enlightenment (ƎE) blog article as more of a short chapter in a book that goes deep:

  • Part 1) is about mindsets and presenting an overall picture of how to target the roots of emotional eating and evaluate whether you hit or miss. 

  • Part 2) is a list of strategies to prevent boredom eating — strategies for you to implement and test out for yourself by applying the mindset and measurements you learned in Part 1

So grab a pen and paper, have your beginner’s mind, get comfortable, and take a deep breath with me.  

Here’s more detail on what we’ll cover, with each concept building on the previous:

Part 1) 

  • The True Meaning Of Boredom – A Lack Of Meaning
  • 3 Steps: How To Stop Eating When Bored Enlightenment Mindset
    • 1 / 3: How To Target Your Emotional Needs Behind Bored Eating
    • 2 / 3: How To Know Whether Your ‘Hit’ Or Met Your Emotional Needs
    • 3/ 3: Using Good ‘Hit’ Feelings To Stick With New Habits
  • Summary: Understanding The Enlightenment Mindset To Stop Boredom Eating

Part 2)

  • How Do I Stop Boredom Eating? Do These Instead To Meet Your Needs And Feel Good (9 Ways To Take Care Of Yourself and Rewire Your Mind)

The True Meaning Of Boredom – A Lack Of Meaning

Boredom is a lack of meaning or purpose.

And if we simply say that eating out of boredom:

  • is caused by lacking an activity, then the typical solution becomes to ‘go on a walk’ or ‘make an art project’. But these solutions are too superficial.
  • is caused by boring situations like work, then the typical solution becomes about finding ways to stay creative and engaged.  But again, these will miss the root cause of emotional eating.

Learning to stop bored emotional eating comes down to purpose, but not in the way you might think.

Life Purpose Is Too Vague To Be Useful

No, I’m not talking about “life purpose.” Life purpose is great and all, but it’s really big and complicated. 

There’s been literally thousands of books published on the topic of life purpose and, yes, there are indeed some good ones. 

For starters, the Bhagavad-Gita has been my primary spiritual text for years now, and I really embrace the principles of its teachings.

However, I’m just an emotional eating coach, I’m not a spiritual guru or powerful teacher who is qualified to talk about life purpose.

In my humble opinion:

  • Life purpose is too vague to be useful for many people
  • Life purpose is more like a general concept, but hard to drill down and take specific action
  • Finding your life purpose might take years of study and introspection, and is way beyond the scope of this blog article
  • Everyone has a life purpose, but it’s different for every person and therefore hard to write about

I’m talking about a different type of purpose, not the cliche life purpose that’s tossed about willy nilly by the same people who give you overly simplistic advice to ‘go on a walk’.

I’m talking about learning how to generate purpose by targeting your emotional needs!

This is a simpler way to still find purpose.  It’s  not so vague to almost be impractical like ‘life purpose’.

How To Stop Eating When Bored Enlightenment Mindset:

Unlike the broad sense of purpose which can seem impossibly hard to define, measure or reach …

This Enlightenment Mindset is about generating little bits of purpose at a time by successfully meeting your needs. 

When you meet the emotional need successfully, you will generate purpose.

You will also be able to evaluate strategies based upon whether or not they meet your needs. 

This will prevent you from scratching your head wondering why journaling and other self-care behaviors never quite seem to eliminate your food craving itch!

To understand this Enlightenment Mindset, you must first understand 3 main ideas:

  • How To Target Your Emotional Needs
  • How To Know Whether You ‘Hit’ or Met Your Emotional Needs
  • Using Good ‘Hit’ Feelings To Stick With New Habits

Step 1/3) How To Target Your Emotional Needs Behind Bored Eating

maslow hierarchy of needs with basic food needs at the bottom

This first idea involves simply knowing there is a target!

This pyramid is known as Maslow’s Hierarchy and it’s concept I love to talk about. It’s been around since the 1960’s and is one of the most famous and well-regarded models of human needs. 

The reason we need to talk about emotional needs is because I hear so many clients that have gone to nutritionists and therapists and gotten great advice, but somehow learning about their emotional needs never got addressed.

This is why weight loss can become an obsession. By magically achieving weight loss, you imagine that your deeper emotional needs will be met:

  • After I lose weight, then I’ll get respect
  • After I burn the fat, then I’ll be attractive (and have high self-esteem and confidence)

Of course, purposeful weight loss and dieting often isn’t sustainable long term and can even lead to weight gain!

In reality this is like having a bow and arrow, but no real substantial, meaningful target to shoot at! Weight loss in many ways can be a substitute for meeting your needs!

For example, one of my clients (we’ll call her Briana) struggled a lot with boredom eating, and emotional eating in general. 

She’d been seeing different therapists since she was young, but learning about how her emotional needs never got explicitly mentioned. 

She also worked with nutritionists who taught her all about protein.  They also taught her a sort of obsession around measuring food but nothing about her physiological need for food, which I find to be saddening :/

Because oftentimes people hear about eating more fat and protein … and this is fine …

But they never learn about their physiological need for food (see the bottom rung of the pyramid). 

They hear about protein and fat and all these nutrition facts, but in the back of their mind they:

  • Doubt whether they actually need to get their needs met
  • Question whether meeting their needs is a sign of weakness
  • Feel ashamed for engaging in self-care routines

This is one of the most important conversations you can ever have in your life, and it’s one of the hallmarks I emphasize with clients. 

With Briana, it took her quite some time to really wrap her mind around the fact of her physiological need for food.  She began to understand that….

  • Animals eat food, regularly, why not you?
  • Your body has physiological needs for rest, going to the bathroom, sleeping, so why judge your need for food so hard?
  • You at least need to need to eat something, right?

Eventually, Briana was able to embrace more of her basic and emotional needs to target the root of her eating out of boredom habit.  Once we got to that point, then we also combined basic nutritional guidance and therapeutic self-care practices.

In a few months she was able to put together these pieces – needs, nutrition, and therapeutic self-care practices – to greatly reduce her distress around eating.

(For every client relationship, I do a short before and after quiz. Briana reported emotionally eating out of control or mindlessly 5x per week in the beginning and then went down to 0-2x per week a few months later. Perhaps most importantly, Briana integrated the Enlightenment Mindset around food and I knew that she would be able to continue and grow on her own independently of my assistance, although she knew she could contact me anytime for questions even after we stopped officially working together.)

Because yes, eating more fat, protein and more eating more regularly is an important part of learning how to not eat when bored and stopping overeating in general. 

For more info on how to not feel hungry all the time and this important concept, read my other blog article here.

So is journaling and a bunch of other strategies that I’ll be covering more in depth in Part 2. 

But if you just think you need to eat more, without truly believing that your physiological need for food deserves to be met, then your attempts to eat more will probably get short-changed somehow.

If you aren’t aware of the target of your emotional needs then it’s hard to meet them!

Step 2/3) How To Know Whether You ‘Hit’ Or Met Your Emotional Needs

Let’s list out the categories of emotional needs and give you some indicators to tell if they are being met satisfactorily. 

For example, if you look at Maslow’s Pyramid again, notice that Food falls within the bottommost ‘Physiological Need’ tier. 

To know if you’ve met your need for food you should feel content, that is have a belly that:

  • Feels content after meals
  • Doesn’t get too hungry right afterwards
  • Stays comfortably full and content for hours

Being content in your belly is how you should feel throughout the day.

This is also how to stop snacking too! If you feel content after you eat, you won’t want to snack as much, if at all!

So now if you start changing your eating behaviors, you can evaluate whether or not your food need is being met.

If you start eating protein and fat, but you don’t feel content and satisfied afterwards, you know you need to aim differently.

A little bit up or down, to the right or left.

I want to emphasize the “little bit one way or the other” —  if you are eating more protein and fat doesn’t make you feel content, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Just because one snack doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean that you should disregard the importance of having a snack.

It’s just that that particular combination of protein and fat didn’t work for you, but you can still try other proteins and fat combinations as well for a future snack. It’s likely that one of these combinations will remove your itch and leave you feeling content. 

For example, let’s say you try the self-care strategy of eating more food by 3 eating eggs and 3 strips of bacon, but then you feel lousy afterwards. 

Then all you do is take note. You didn’t feel content afterwards.  Then change your aim a little bit, switch things up, try a different amount.

Next time around you try 2 eggs and you think the bacon didn’t work for you so you switch it out for yogurt, or nuts. You feel better afterwards. It’s like you’ve gotten closer to the target of ‘content’. 

Contentedness is a sign that you met your emotional need for food, right?

So now instead of judging success based upon how perfectly you follow the meal plan, you have a different, deeper set of goals.

Here are some other needs and how to know if they are being met. 

(I’ll keep things shorter here because the above example illustrates roughly how to handle each need. You try it out, use some common sense judgment and reflection, and try again. I’ll also be providing some more ideas on how to meet each need to generate purpose and stop boredom eating down below in Part 2.)

  • Safety: more relaxed, content, warm, calm
  • Belonging: acceptance, closeness, joy
  • Esteem: strength, accomplishment
  • Self Actualization / Spiritual: oneness, inner peace, connected

Basically, whatever self-care behavior you do, you’ll need to make sure that afterwards you feel something that indicates your basic need is being met. 

And don’t worry about fully meeting your emotional need, just look for signs of progress.

For example, you may have an underlying anxiety. I get that. At the Eating Disorder Center where I work, I see people all the time who are anxious. 

But we also teach a variety of skills that clients can utilize to feel less anxious and more calm. While it may take time to fully meet an emotional need, as long as you are making progress and giving yourself credit for making progress, that’s what counts.

And let me really emphasize why it’s important that you truly, truly notice the good feelings after you try a self-care behavior. 

The good feelings after you do a self-care behavior and meet an emotional need are vital! 

For example, if you ate the right combination of protein and fat, and then felt content afterwards, you would need to notice the feeling of being content. 

If you felt content, but then went to a stressful meeting and never noticed that you felt content, it would take a lot longer to really shift your boredom eating habits!

It’s crucial that you learn and embrace this concept of noticing a good feeling after meeting an emotional need. 

This next section is a deep dive into the biology of eating when bored.  This is important because feelings in your body are ultimately driven by biology, and therefore governed by habit cycles.

Step 3/3) Using Good ‘Hit’ Feelings To Stick With New Habits

Context: A Brief Look At “Why You Eat Out Of Boredom”

It’s really important to realize that emotional eating is a behavior you innocently learned at some point and seemed pretty normal / rational back then.

For example, you may have started emotionally eating after celebrating a good grade at school. Your parents were really proud of you, and they bought you ice cream as a result.

Back as a kid, you didn’t know about emotional eating or anything like that. In fact, you were probably a smart kid for getting those good grades and quickly noticed some things about food.

  • Food could make you feel better.
  • You could control food
  • Food never argued or left you feeling disappointed
  • Foods never hurt your feelings
  • Food was safety in many ways

(Ever wonder why we need to focus on our emotional needs like safety? Well, food is kinda temporarily sort of taking the place of our emotional need, but with tremendous drawbacks of course!)

Back whenever you started emotionally eating, you were totally innocent and naive about how food could become a dangerous habit when you were bored.

You didn’t know that emotionally eating sugary food could quickly be wiring your brain into automatic habit cycles.

How Sugary Foods Get Wired Into Emotional Eating Habits

It’s pretty well known from a scientific and common sense perspective that ‘junk foods’ release ‘happy’ chemicals. 

Specifically, foods high in sugar, fat and sodium generally speaking release more endorphins and dopamine than other foods without as much sugar, fat or sodium. 

These are known as the ‘happy chemicals’. 

And did you also know that other studies have shown that humans will shock themselves will electricity if locked in a room with nothing to do?

That’s right, people hate boredom. Some people would rather shock themselves with electricity than be bored!

Now, electricity hurts. And if you’re bored at work, you can’t easily go to the nearest outlet and shock yourself. 

But what you can do, and what many people do, is turn to food.

Food not only provides distraction from boredom, but eating highly palatable food leads to the release of endorphins and dopamine, which make you feel better – temporarily. 

This creates what is known as a habit cycle:

cue routine reward the cycle of habits

The boredom is the cue, eating is the routine, and the reward is feeling better temporarily. 

And now imagine that you had innocently repeated this cycle hundreds if not thousands of times as a kid?

Birthday parties, celebrations, feeling bad at home so Mom gives you ice cream to feel better, all the times you’ve wandered into the kitchen at night …

Plus nowadays there are so many distractions that are wiring us to reach for quick solutions to boredom. 

  • Online shopping 
  • Social media
  • Youtube
  • Amazon

And of course eating too! There’s never been more delivery apps, convenience foods and options to order online.

So we have been trained by society, by parents, by ourselves … to reach for the quick solution. If you’ve lived in emotional eating habits for years, your brain most likely has become ‘conditioned’ to automatically search out foods when you’re bored.

This is why sometimes you can be eating chips all of a sudden without even knowing it. You’re brain has done this pattern so many times before now at the slightest notion of being bored, your brain has already taken over and made your hand reach for the chips.

Plus with Covid right now, there’s more time to be bored at home. 

And I write this to impress upon you the absolute necessity of noticing the good feelings after you get your basic needs met.

So previously you felt boredom, ate sugary food, and were temporarily rewarded.

Now you’ll still feel bored, but instead of eating sugary you can do other actions instead like eating protein / fat to meet your physiological need for enough food, and then you’ll feel content or accomplished.  

This is how you rewire your brain and habits to stop emotional eating.

And it’s very important you pause to notice the good feelings after making progress towards meeting an emotional need. Because the good feelings of being content and accomplished are most likely less intense than the temporary buzz you got from the sugary food. 

If you miss noticing these good feelings, then it will be hard if not impossible for you to change your habits. 

But if you can bit by bit, notice how these new actions make you feel after you meet your emotional needs, you’ll in time start to become naturally more drawn to doing these actions.

So instead of eating when bored being your default response, you’ll now be able to not eat when bored and do something else instead.

Summary:  Understanding The Enlightenment  Mindset To Stop Boredom Eating

Ok, so now you know the underlying mindset that you need to have in order to truly stop eating when bored. 

This is the mindset of how you stop boredom eating.

I’ll try to summarize here for you, and then we’ll get into the actionable strategies you can start to try out.

First, realize you have to get your basic needs met. 

The needs are like your goals, and how you can evaluate whether your actionable strategies are actually working.

When you meet a goal, it should feel good. You should feel more content, safe, relaxed, etc.

These positive feelings naturally result when you meet your emotional need, and they generate purpose. 

And you really need to notice these positive feelings! 

Because to change a habit, the new habit has to make you feel good.

Meeting your needs has to feel good.

Now how can you go about meeting your emotional needs?

So far we’ve mainly talked about mindsets. 

We’ve talked a bit about eating protein and fat to meet your physiological needs…

And here are 9 other ways to not eat when bored.

Part 2) How Do I Stop Boredom Eating? Do These Instead To Meet Your Needs And Feel Good  (9 Ways To Take Care Of Yourself And Rewire Your Mind)

  1. Drink More Water
  2. Journal – Discover If You Really Need To Eat Or Not
  3. Call A Friend
  4. Do Sun Salutation Or Other Rhythmic Movements Like Walking
  5. Deep Breathe
  6. Wolf Nap
  7. Art / Creative Expression
  8. Volunteer
  9. Study Spiritual Texts

1- Drink More Water

It’s easy to confuse hunger with thirst. 

The same region of your brain is responsible for signaling both hunger and thirst, so its relatively easy to be unsure about what you want.  

Instead of automatically going to the kitchen when you’re bored, practice to see if your need for hydration is getting met by drinking water and see how you feel 15-20 minutes later. 

If you feel refreshed, or my favorite – if you find yourself drinking the water really quickly – those are signs that your biological need for water wasn’t being met. 

Notice how you feel after drinking the water…

2- Journal – Discover If You Really Need To Eat Or Not

Perhaps you drink the water, but you’re still desiring food to eat because you’re bored.

There’s probably another need that’s getting missed, like either:

  • not eating enough 
  • you’re stressed out

You can use a journal to reflect when you last ate, and how you are feeling in your stomach. Are there any hunger cues present? If you write about them, or the lack of them, you’ll be in a much better position to make a wise decision.

If your stomach is growling then you are probably hungry and eating food makes sense right now, even if you are bored. 

But if your stomach feels fine, then you can realize your desire to eat food is more emotional. 

Oftentimes we can get stressed out, and our need for safety goes unmet. In the case of boredom, oftentimes there can be an underlying anxiety as well.

It’s absolutely vital we learn to calm ourselves down in order to meet our needs for safety. As we can calm down, this can help us feel more purposeful and defeat the enemy of boredom.

3. Call A Friend

Do you have a friend to call? 

I’m not saying to call your friend every time that you feel bored.

However, if you can reach out to a friend at least one time when you are feeling bored and about to reach for the sweets …

And if your friend can help you calm down and feel more safe …

Then this can be a reference experience for you to reflect upon later. 

You can remember that your friend was there for you, and this memory you can hopefully reflect upon to feel safe in the future.

Or you can just try calling your friend again but we don’t want to rely on them all the time!

4. Do Sun Salutation Or Other Rhythmic Movements Like Walking

Here is a sun salutation video.

It’s a rhythmic form of movement. 

Something that I offer to all my email subscribers is free live stream yoga. I do this because yoga can be extremely relaxing and calming if you do the rhythmic stuff. I teach the class in my living room streaming online and you’re welcome to join!

I’m talking about just doing a sun salutation repeatedly over and over again with your breath. 

Like if you’re feeling bored, then this can be an absurdly simple way to get your blood moving. 

And there’s something nice about exercise with rhythm. Any rhythm will do. You can walk and find a rhythm, that counts too. 

Just moving your body in a rhythm is easy, so if you’re bored you can do this without much resistance, and then kind of let go and let the rhythm take you through a nice sun salutation for a few minutes or walking around the block a few times.

I personally walk almost every day for at least 5 mins!

If you aren’t getting your self-esteem needs met, this can help slowly build up confidence in yourself.

5. Deep Breathe

Count slowly to 6 as you inhale.

Count slowly to 6 as you exhale.

Doing this type of breathing can give you back a sense of control if you are panicking and have a need to feel safe again.

In school when I learned about treatment for panic attacks, I learned that about ⅓ of the treatment programs for panic attacks simply revolve around teaching people deep breathing.

Deep breathing calms your nervous system and can help you relax. It’s a skill that you can practice and improve at which can also help improve or help self-esteem needs get met.

6. Wolf Nap

If you’re feeling totally exhausted then take a wolf nap.

A wolf nap is just a short nap for about 10-12 minutes. 

When I am feeling totally exhausted, I know that my fundamental need for rest is not getting met, so I give myself permission to take a break.

(This step right here, giving yourself permission to take a break, is really important for every one of these self care activities, you got to give yourself permission!)

I set my alarm, and then I lay down. Often I won’t even fully go to sleep. I’ll just kind of lie there like a log, in a sort of hazy state where I am still thinking.

But just the break, letting your mind spin its wheels while your body remains still, can help you meet your need for rest and to take a break.

If you’re bored, sometimes it can be exhausting to be bored because you’re thinking while you are bored! This can give your mind a break from boredom!

7. Art / Creative Expression

There is perhaps no better way to pass the time than finding something that gives you flow.

Flow is where basically time flies by, and many times people find flow and artistic endeavors. 

For me, I find a lot of flow in writing and playing chess. 

How do you like to pass the time in an artsy way? Painting? 

Usually art is something that you can improve at, heck even video games you can improve at and video games can be a fine way to pass the time.

8. Volunteer

Volunteer opportunities are a quick Google search away.

I know when you’re feeling bored, sometimes you just want to be lazy and volunteering at the last thing on your mind. 

But boredom can be a killer. It can be absolutely miserable being bored. And the people who you would volunteer with are always going to be pretty friendly and nice.

Countless studies have shown that volunteering is perhaps one of the best things you can do to get yourself out of a funk.

Also, volunteering can give you extremely high amounts of purpose.

9.Study Spiritual Texts

Something that has always given me a lot of joy and way to pass the time has been to study the spiritual texts like the Bhagavad Gita.

Don’t we all have spiritual texts, or if not spirituality then autobiographies to read from inspiring people?

These also can be some of the best ways to pass the time, and they will give you tons of purpose as well in your life.

And to wrap up here… Let’s just remember to do these activities in the name of love. Trying to love yourself means being easy on yourself.

Remember, it’s about 1% improvement each day, and if you fall down, that doesn’t erase the progress you’ve made.

Unlike diets and other weight loss attempts which completely neglect your emotional needs, meeting your emotional needs will give you a deeper sense of trust, safety and purpose. 

This is ultimately how to not eat when bored, by gradually relearning that there are more meaningful, pleasurable and rewarding experiences other than food. 

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