Boredom Eating Solutions & What We Can Learn From The Curious Case of Airplane Food


Hunger is more than a feeling caused by our body's physical need for food. A lot of our hunger is also psychological in nature.   

What, when and how much we eat is subtly influenced by our environment, including plate and package size, smells, colours, situations, people, etc. In other words, we don't only eat because we're hungry and then stop when we're comfortably full (shocking, I know!). Other factors have a big influence. Remember eating candy until you thought your teeth would melt and your stomach would burst as a kid on Halloween?

In my experience, mindless eating (not being fully aware of what you're doing) and boredom eating (eating to fill time/occupy yourself) have a lot in common, so we're going to treat them similarly in this post. 



A couple weeks back, I was traveling with my girl friend on a plane and the flight included dinner service. [You can read all about the trip here.]

It was the standard low budget airplane food that we all cringe at: dried-out, rubbery chicken breast, some watery rice, a rock hard rice cake (instead of a rock hard bun - I had the gluten free option. ha!), and a couple steamed carrots. 

If I was starving I would have eaten it and been thankful. But I wasn't. So I didn't. 

Naturally, we'd anticipated this and gotten a substantial (and delicious) meal just before the flight. Neither one of us was hungry at all by the time the food carts came down the aisle.

After scanning the offerings, I closed my food container within 15 seconds of opening it, put it aside, and continued reading my book. It was a riveting text about training methods and lactate testing for endurance athletes, by the way. If you're into fitness training, check it out here

My girlfriend, on the other hand, made a rookie mistake. She left her food open in front of her as she fiddled on her iPad. Although I'm sure she had no intention of eating the meal initially, after a few minutes I noticed she was putting fork fulls into her mouth. 

"Dat's nasty. Why are you eating that?" I asked.

She blinked, finished chewing the dry tasteless morsels in her mouth and said "I don't know."

She wasn't hungry at all - if anything she was still a bit full after our pre-flight meal. And she certainly didn't take pleasure in eating the food. That would have been impossible. So why was she putting fork fulls of it into her face?



There has been plenty written on mindless eating, with one of the most popular books on the subject being "Mindless Eating" by Brian Wansink. 

There's a lot of research behind the concept, but we can boil the big ideas down to three main points:

  1. We're very bad at judging our level of hunger, especially when distracted. 
  2. We don't always eat because we're hungry or because we've made an active decision to ingest food. Many of our food decisions happen unconsciously while we're on auto-pilot. 
  3. Environmental cues play a huge role in shaping our eating decisions - when we eat, what we eat, and how much. However, with a little knowledge, we can make this work for us, instead of working against us. 

Take the airplane example. The very existence of food, open and sitting in front of us makes us want to eat some - even when we're full and it tastes gross. I knew this, so I reacted by closing up the food container and putting it away. I changed my environment just enough to remove that "temptation." Otherwise I would have been chewing watery, flavourless rice without thinking about it too.



How can you avoid mindless eating and how do you step eating when bored? Here are some simple tips:

  1. Keep a food journal and review it often. You'll see the meals that you intended to eat vs the ones you "accidentally" ate. You'll develop awareness about these patterns, and with awareness you'll be in a position to take appropriate action.

    Ask yourself: what situations and environmental cues are affecting your nutrition? This removes the "mindless" part of mindless eating.

    In fact, just yesterday I had a great follow-up meeting with a nutrition coaching client who's finally been able to see steady, consistent progress after years of ups and downs. Journaling was a big reason for her improved perspective and awareness about her eating patterns.  
  2. I've said this before and I'll say it again. Most of the time, know the general basics (what/where/when) of what you're going to eat the day before. That way there are no, or at least very few, accidents along the way.
  3. Don't keep foods that you know are devilish temptations in your immediate environment. Keep your house and office safe. If you want to deviate, fine! Own the decision, don't do it mindlessly. 

    I recommend going to a shop and getting one serving, eating it there, and not bringing any extras/leftovers back home. You're a lot less likely to eat ice cream in the evening if you have to leave your house and go to the store to buy a drumstick every time vs. taking two steps to your freezer to dive headfirst into a 2L container. 
  4. Stay engaged with something important in your life. In my experience, a lot of mindless eating happens when people are bored or feel unfulfilled. Food unconsciously gives us something to do, and makes us feel good - at least temporarily. 

    When was the last time you "accidentally" downed half a bag of Oreo's when you were busy doing something that truly excited you? Probably never? You don't have time for that nonsense when you're actively engaged in something you're passionate about, and loving yourself and your life.

    On the other hand, if you stay-at-home all day, and the only distraction you have is crumby afternoon soap operas and the same old Sandra Bullock movies you've seen a dozen times, chances are you may find yourself reaching for the peanut M&M's for a little pick me up. Same thing if you find your job extremely boring. 

    Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of other factors that lead to poor eating decisions (stress, fear, uncertainly, valuing treats over the feeling of being healthier, etc.), but if this resonates with you, do some creative thinking about how you can spend your time in a way that you deem more worthwhile. It won't be the easiest process, but it will be worth it.



What can you do to stop eating when bored?

The bottom line is this: do a food journal for at least a few days and identify the most common places, situations, and times of day where you make poor eating decisions. Then figure out how to insulate yourself from that.

Remove yourself from the situation and find ways to make it more convenient to eat healthy foods than unhealthy foods. 

If you find that you're eating mainly due to boredom, find something occupy yourself. It sounds simple, but sometimes you can cure boredom eating just by calling a friend or deciding to go on a walk.

In the long-term, think of things that excite you and make you feel fulfilled and try to spend more time doing that. 

If you don't know where to start and need help, drop me a line and set-up a free consult.

I'd also suggest reading these relevant posts:

Part 1: Three Ways to Make Any Nutrition Plan Easier to Follow

Part 2: Three Ways to Make Any Nutrition Plan Easier to Follow

Serena Williams' Body Isn't Fair and Neither is Yours