Every day, when I’ve done all the fun work stuff and only have the crappy tasks left, I find myself walking to the kitchen and foraging for snacks.
Chances are, you do too: Eating your way out of the blahs appears to be pretty common—for instance, google it and you'll find that every women’s magazine has written about how to stop the practice dozens of times. But why we do it is trickier to answer. "I'm not aware of research that has specifically looked at the mechanism that causes people to eat when they’re bored," says Stephan Guyenet, a neuroscientist and the author of The Hungry Brain. Based off of what we know about our brain’s relationship to food, however, extrapolating isn’t too difficult, Guyenet says.
“Eating is one of the most powerful stimuli for humans,” he says, and our brains crave stimulation—that’s why we also love things like video games and roller coasters. “When you’re bored, you’re not being stimulated.” Add food to the equation, however, and voilà: instant gratification. That gratification is even greater if you reach for junk food. “Not all food is equally rewarding,” Guyenet says.
When we eat a new food, our guts and brains are cued to measure the nutrients inside, Guyenet explains. Nutrients like carbs—especially from sugar and starch—fat, protein, glutamate, and salt trigger a larger dopamine release in the brain than, say, raw celery. That dopamine release compels us to eat more—and makes us crave that food again. That’s why stinky French cheese may taste gross the first time you eat it, but soon, you’re actively seeking it out.
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Plus, snack foods are methodically designed and refined so they satisfy the brain—using sensations like crunch, melt-point, and other sensory factors to keep you eating. “There are certainly theories that some foods are literally designed to reel us in, with the perfect flavor and texture combinations that our brains just can’t resist,” says Heather Kaplan, a Washington, DC-based dietitian and host of the RD Real Talk podcast.
How much you consume—and how unrelated it is to your actual hunger levels—is subjective. There may be biological and genetic components, says Aaron Mercer, a Seattle-based obesity researcher. Your melanocortin system in your brain helps tell you when to stop eating, Mercer says, but some people’s melanocortin pathways don’t function properly. And some people—especially overweight people—don’t produce as much leptin, a hormone that tells the melanocortin pathway that the body is satiated. If you have less leptin, you’re going to feel hungry, even if you aren’t really in need of calories.
This could be one reason why some people are more prone to eating than others when they’re not actually hungry. Shana Adise, a neuroscientist at the University of Vermont’s Larber College of Medicine, studied this phenomenon while getting her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. First, she had kids eat a meal until they were completely full. Then they were put in a room that was stocked with toys, games, and food. Although the kids should have felt full, some continued to eat. “It’s normal for a kid to take a bite of a cookie or a chip even if they’re not hungry," Adise says, "but these kids—despite being full—decided to sit and eat instead of playing with toys.”
Next, the kids underwent brain scans. During the scan, they were rewarded with food or money for doing small tasks. For some of these kids, the reward center of the brain showed greater activation when the reward was food than when it was money. Adise is quick to point out that we don’t know why some kids find food more rewarding than money. “Were they born that way? Does it have something to do with how they are raised? It could be a combination of factors.”
It's an interesting finding, however, because it helps explain why some of us struggle more with overeating while others never even seem to be tempted. Of course, that doesn’t mean you get to shrug and say, “my brain makes me do this” as you down a family-sized bag of Doritos. “I think we have some ability to control what we do," Adise says, "but it may take some extra trying."
One thing Caplan recommends is mindful interventions—or mindful eating dialectical behavioral therapy. “While some may understand that mindful eating involves being more mindful and present during meals, the practice can extend to emotional awareness—being aware of why you eat, not just what you’re eating.”
In other words, the next time you’re bored, don’t scroll through Facebook and munch on Cheez-Its while tuning out the fact that you’re bored. Instead, think to yourself, “What I’m feeling right now is a lack of stimulation. That doesn’t mean I’m hungry.” This takes work: You’re not going to become emotionally aware in just a day or two, but Caplan says that it’s effective when regularly put into practice.
Other interventions, however, may not be as successful: Guyenet, for instance, is skeptical of much of the advice frequently suggested by women’s magazines. “If you tell someone to exercise when they want to eat, you’re basically asking them to do something that’s hard and doesn’t feel very good in place of doing something that feels great. That’s not realistic.” His suggestion is to control your environment. Barriers to junk food work better. In other words, if it’s not in your house in the first place, you’re unlikely to expend the effort to go pick it up.
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