Many people struggle with boredom eating, or eating to pass the time — even if they’re not truly hungry.
In fact, boredom eating and other forms of emotional eating may contribute to excess weight gain.
This article explains how to tell whether you’re hungry or bored, offers a guide to hunger triggers, and provides strategies to help stave off boredom eating and emotional eating.
What is hunger?
Hunger can be difficult to define, as it involves a complex interplay of hormones, biochemical processes, and physical reactions. Generally speaking, there are two types of hunger — physical and psychological.
Physical hunger can be defined as your body’s drive to eat for survival, while psychological hunger is based more on cravings or external cues.
This type is true hunger, in which your body needs food so it can create more energy.
With this type of hunger, your stomach feels empty and may rumble. You may also have hunger pangs. If you don’t eat, you may experience low blood sugar levels and feel weak, unfocused, or fatigued.
Psychological hunger occurs when you have a desire to eat but feel no physical signs that your body needs food.
It may manifest as a craving for dessert despite feeling full from a meal, or a desire for a specific item or type of food.
Contrast this sensation with physical hunger, which can be satisfied by any food at all.
Physical hunger is true hunger, which is characterized by an empty feeling in your stomach and discomfort that can only be relieved by eating. Conversely, psychological hunger is associated with cravings, emotional eating, and boredom eating.
Psychological hunger triggers
Whereas physical hunger is triggered by an empty stomach and driven by your body’s need to procure more energy, many factors play into psychological hunger.
Boredom eating may not only occur as a result of boredom but also various triggers outlined below. For example, stress, poor sleep, and easy access to junk foods may make you more likely to eat out of boredom.
Here are some of the most common psychological hunger triggers.
Boredom is one trigger for psychological hunger.
In fact, boredom eating may be even more common than other types of emotional eating, such as stress eating.
Additionally, people who are prone to boredom may be more likely to overeat or emotionally eat.
Chronic mental stress may alter your hunger hormones, triggering food cravings.
Such hormonal changes may cause people with excess weight to be more susceptible to stress-induced food cravings.
When people around you are eating or drinking, you may be more likely to do so — even if you’re not hungry.
One small study in 65 college students found that those seated with someone who got a second helping of food were 65% more likely to get seconds themselves than those seated with someone who didn’t get seconds.
If you’ve ever had a food craving triggered by a television commercial, you know that advertising can be a powerful trigger for psychological hunger.
In fact, some research suggests that advertisements depicting people eating are more likely to trigger cravings than other methods of showcasing food in ads.
Sleep may have a powerful effect on your eating habits.
Some studies show that adults who don’t get enough sleep eat more calories, snack more, and are more likely to gain weight.
Certain highly processed items like potato chips, candy, and fast food are considered hyperpalatable.
This means that they’re designed to taste delicious and immediately reward your brain. For this reason, many people struggle to regulate their intake of these foods — even when they’re not physically hungry.
Several factors may increase your susceptibility to psychological hunger, including stress, social pressure, advertising, poor sleep, hyperpalatable foods, and boredom.
How to tell whether you’re truly hungry
True hunger and thirst feel different than boredom.
Bear in mind that you need to fuel your body regularly to maintain your health and provide energy to get you through your day.
Some people skip meals when they’re trying to lose weight, which is often counterproductive, as waiting too long between meals may lead to overeating. As such, it’s important to eat when you’re hungry — not wait until you’re ravenous.
If you recently ate a balanced meal and are craving more food, the craving is likely psychological. However, if you haven’t eaten in several hours and are experiencing signs of physical hunger, you’re probably hungry and need to eat a meal or snack.
Hunger and thirst cues
The early signs of true hunger may include mild hunger pangs, a feeling of emptiness in your stomach, and stomach rumbling. However, these signs may differ from person to person.
Additionally, true physical thirst may often be accompanied by a dry mouth or slight itch in your throat, as well as a desire to drink any beverage — including plain water.
On the other hand, psychological thirst may manifest as a craving for a specific drink, such as soda.
Likewise, if you crave a particular food and won’t eat unless you can have it, you’re likely experiencing a psychological craving — not actual hunger. True physical hunger, especially if you reach a point of urgent hunger, is much less discriminating.
To determine whether you’re truly hungry, try the following techniques.
Do a mental check-in
Trust yourself to know how your body feels when you’re truly hungry. If you want, ask yourself the following questions:
- What emotions are you feeling?
- Are you bored, anxious, or sad?
- When is the last time you ate a meal or snack?
- Are you experiencing signs of true hunger, even if they’re early signs?
While you should try to refrain from eating if you’re not truly hungry, you shouldn’t wait until you’re extremely hungry either.
Drink a glass of water
Sometimes, a thirst cue may feel like physical hunger.
Try drinking a glass of water if you’re second-guessing whether you’re truly hungry. If you still feel hungry afterward, go ahead and eat.
True hunger has physical manifestations, such as hunger pangs or a rumbling stomach. If you’re having trouble distinguishing physical and psychological hunger, try doing a mental check-in or drinking a glass of water.
Tips to stave off boredom and prevent unnecessary eating
On occasion, almost everyone eats when they’re not hungry.
This is normal — and nothing to be concerned about when it happens infrequently. In fact, periodic social eating or occasionally indulging in comfort foods may give your mental health a small boost.
Yet, habitual mindless eating or routinely eating due to boredom may lead to unwanted weight gain and other health issues.
Here are some tips to manage psychological hunger and stave off boredom eating.
Understand your eating triggers
People don’t usually crave healthy foods like fresh fruits or vegetables but rather sugary, high calorie, or highly processed items.
Foods that are easy to overeat, such as chips, ice cream, and candy, are commonplace items in many households. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these foods occasionally, keeping them out of your kitchen may help you cut back on snacking when you’re bored.
Instead, shop for snacks made from whole foods. If you eat fruit or veggies out of boredom, these foods are much better choices than junk food.
Practice mindful eating
Eat slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the taste and texture of your food, as well as savoring it. This practice gives your brain time to recognize when you’re full.
Map out your day
Some people may find that a schedule keeps them from getting bored.
Try planning out your day’s activities each morning. Make a set time for meals and snacks if that will help stave off boredom eating.
Have a plan for when you get bored
If boredom strikes, have a strategy in place.
Keep a list of household chores you need to complete, read a book, or go for a walk.
Wait 30 minutes
If you want to eat but don’t feel hungry, wait 30 minutes and see whether the urge passes. Try to keep yourself occupied during this time.
If you’re truly hungry, physical hunger sensations may set in after this pause.
Know when to seek help
It’s important to note that some people may need to work with a therapist or registered dietitian to control emotional eating.
What’s more, regular emotional eating may indicate a bigger problem.
Whereas emotional eating involves consuming food for comfort, binge eating disorder (BED) is a psychological condition that involves eating a lot in a short period.
If you feel out of control when eating and frequently binge on large amounts of food, even when you’re not hungry, seek guidance from your healthcare provider. BED is an eating disorder that requires professional treatment.
To stave off boredom eating and psychological hunger, try keeping trigger foods out of your home, practicing mindful eating, and planning out your day.
What about when you want to eat but aren’t able to?
The opposite scenario — feeling physically hungry but being unable to eat — can be difficult as well.
For example, if you’re in a long work meeting during your lunch break or stuck in unexpected traffic at mealtime, hunger may set in quickly. This may lead you to overeat when you finally get the chance to have a meal or snack.
In fact, people tend to overeat after they go a while without eating when truly hungry. This compensatory overeating may lead to weight gain, especially if it happens regularly.
Here are some tips to help you manage physical hunger when you’re unable to eat:
- Plan ahead. If you know you won’t be able to eat for a while, give yourself time to make a filling meal with plenty of protein, healthy fat, and fiber. Try avocado toast with hard-boiled eggs or beans and rice (with or without meat) and a hefty side salad.
- Chew gum. Sometimes, the act of chewing gum is enough to alleviate hunger — though it’s just a temporary fix. If you’re truly hungry, chewing gum won’t satisfy you.
- Don’t overeat later. Once you’re able to eat, do so slowly and mindfully. Take careful note of when you feel full to avoid overeating.
If you’re unable to eat when you’re likely to become physically hungry, plan ahead by eating a satisfying meal beforehand. Additionally, try chewing gum. Be careful to avoid compensatory overeating.
The bottom line
It’s easy to eat even when you’re not feeling hungry, especially when you’re bored. Habitual boredom eating is dangerous, as it may lead to unwanted weight gain.
To prevent boredom eating, do a mental check-in before you eat to verify that you’re truly experiencing physical hunger.
Additionally, the strategies outlined above may help you manage psychological hunger and reduce boredom eating or other types of emotional eating.