It’s pretty easy to find articles on the internet that attempt to help you stop your bad habit of eating when bored. It’s less easy, though, to find articles that explain clearly why that happens in the first place. Why does it seem like whenever we’re bored we gravitate toward food and we just munch away?
The function of food as we’ve known it for a long time is clear: it nourishes our body. The right foods provide us with enough nutrients to stay alive, stay awake and get us through our day. It’s energy. When our body wants more food, it sends signals to let us know. We call these signals hunger. When we’re hungry, we go eat some more until we get another signal: all full.
Eating when bored goes against everything above that we know about food and our natural tendencies. So what exactly is going on in the brain when we do this?
Your Brain on Boredom
Scientists conducted a study on this in 2014. The results were published in an article called “Eating and inflicting pain out of boredom.” They rounded up participants and forced them to watch the same 85-second video on continuous loop for an entire hour — safe to say that’s pretty boring.
While this was going on, scientists gave some of the participants M&Ms to eat and gave others the ability to perform a small electric shock on themselves. In the end, the electric shocks were nearly as popular as eating M&Ms. The conclusion was that people will do just about anything to temporarily rid of their boredom and eating just happens to fall in that category.
Why are M&Ms and food tied to excitement?
This study, however, seems fundamentally flawed in several areas. First, it’s probably fair to say that people who enjoy M&Ms and people who enjoy electric shocks are very disproportionate to each other.
Second, since the M&Ms experiment was separate from the electric shock one, there is no real way of knowing which is preferred. Participants should have been given both options at the same time and it’s likely people would have chosen M&Ms over an electric shock to break the monotony.
Let’s make the generally reasonable assertion that in any given situation, people are more likely to choose eating M&Ms over shocking themselves given both options. Again, it’s just an assertion, but hard to dispute unless you prefer pain over eating chocolate. Now we have a new question: why are M&Ms and food tied to excitement? Again, food (outside of certain cultural relevance) has only ever been fuel. Food is not a toy for amusement.
The Dopamine Factor
Susan Carnell, Ph.D. for Psychology Today squarely focuses on dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain strongly tied with feelings of reward and pleasure. That’s why it’s no coincidence that addictive drugs dramatically increase dopamine production in the brain, while a dopamine deficiency is often linked to depression.
Guess what has an effect on dopamine levels. If you guessed food, you’re correct.
You might just go for the broccoli for the change of pace, but rewarding foods are likely higher up on your preference list.
Although, technically, you’re only half correct. Many foods do contribute to an increase in dopamine production, but it’s junk food that gives us that dopamine spike we so desire when bored. These foods are specifically designed with this in mind: the salty, sugar, fatty goodness evokes a feeling of reward. In fact, this logic can also be applied to emotional eating, i.e. why some people eat an entire tub of ice cream when sad.
Consider this: when you’re bored, are you more likely to eat some steamed broccoli or a bag of potato chips? Eating potato chips feels much better, so that’s the obvious choice. You might just go for the broccoli for the change of pace — maybe you’re now bored eating potato chips — but “rewarding” foods are likely higher up on your preference list. (Cheese is another food known to spike dopamine, so it’s common to gravitate toward that as well.)
Ultimately, the scientific study that indicates we eat solely to break the monotony tied with boredom is partly accurate. We don’t always eat when bored, we often just do whatever it is that gives us a new feeling of excitement. However, when it comes to bored eating and specifically why we tend to eat junk food when bored, you have dopamine to blame. Or better yet, blame junk food manufacturers for taking advantage of dopamine.