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Nutrition,  Lifestyle

Boredom Snacking: 8 Easy Ways to Stop It

Boredom snacking is no rare phenomenon. In the US, 25% of Americans are estimated to snack when they feel understimulated. If you’re reading this post, chances are that you’re struggling as well and wanting to break the cycle. Congratulations on taking the first step.

Picture this: you’re sitting in front of your screen, scrolling and jumping from one tab to another aimlessly. Despite internet use increasing dopamine levels and therefore providing pleasure, you just don’t feel it tonight. In fact, you feel extremely bored. Your brain wanders to other ways to make you feel better. One sticks out: the birthday cake leftovers in the fridge. That marks the beginning of a conflict between your conscience and your cravings.

Is snacking actually bad? Think about it: why, how much and how often are you snacking? Are you having an apple between two meals because you’re genuinely hungry? Is it a very occasional guilty pleasure you’ve been craving for a while? Or has it become a daily (maybe even multiple times a day) habit that you feel you “can’t break” anymore? If the answer is the latter and it’s taking a mental toll on you, you might have a bad relationship with food or something more serious. This post isn’t really a cure to that; however, it can be a tool: we are going to discuss 8 Easy Ways to Stop Boredom Snacking.

The Science of Boredom Eating

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Remember this structure? Yes, it’s good old dopamine. I know I talk a lot about it, but that’s what gives me a little bit of it. It’s a fascinating bunch of atoms.

Dopamine is a motivator. Positive (and especially essential for survival) experiences provide us with a rewarding sensation so we will seek them out again. Eating is one such experience: it is necessary for survival, making it a positive experience that we are meant to seek out so we don’t die.

Low dopamine = low motivation to do things. In fact, it may lead to anhedonia, a symptom of depression. The brain tries to compensate for low dopamine by encouraging you to start activities that increase it, such as… eating. It’s usually an easy, low-effort task, especially if you have readily available snacks in your kitchen. Most people don’t take the time to make something from scratch when they feel like that.

Not All Foods Are Created Equal

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It just so happens that high-sugar and high-fat foods trigger a dopamine “flood”, making them addictive, but that’s not the only reason: we’ve discussed before how prolonged exposition of the dopamine receptors to their ligand makes said receptors less sensitive, a phenomenon known as tolerance. The brain starts seeking more of that specific kind of food, despite it not being essential for survival (quite the contrary, in fact).

8 Easy Ways to Stop Boredom Snacking

1. Got a hobby? Time to Get Lost in It!

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This just in: hobbies release dopamine too. Be it knitting, writing, reading or even singing… Yes, as long as it makes you feel good, that means it’s doing the job. A rule of thumb is to pay attention to the feeling it gives: do you feel stimulated and like you could spend hours doing it? Great! You found yourself a healthy dopamine farm.

Another advantage is that they help you pass time and forget about your cravings until meal time. By then, in fact, the cravings may have disappeared completely! Not only that, but you’re also learning and honing a skill that may benefit you in the future (or at the very least make you feel happy).

2. Outrun the Cravings

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Another great dopamine trigger is physical exercise. A healthy workout is great and helps with most ailments, on top of also being another form of distraction. Don’t worry about hating to run or your back pain preventing you from lifting weight: the rule of thumb seen in #1 still applies here. If you feel great during and after doing it, it’s probably doing the job.

An interesting feature of exercising is that, according to this study, “the binding affinity between DA (dopamine) and DA receptor […] is also increased by exercise training.” That means that not only more of it is released, but more of it also actually binds with its receptors to allow the effects to kick in. That makes this tip one of the best you’ll ever try. Of course, if it’s not a craving and you’re actually hungry, you might want to jump to tip #8 instead.

3. Love Challenges?

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Go solve a Rubik’s Cube or Sudoku. Cognitive effort can be annoying and boring, but it seems that you can train yourself to enjoy it. Yes, you can basically Pavlov yourself into liking math. You will end up getting the rewarding feeling without any “physical” rewards. If you don’t want to do math or Sudoku, it can be your favorite challenging game that you haven’t beaten yet instead.

4. Call Your Loved Ones

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It doesn’t really have to be a call, but in an era where everything moves fast and visits are hard to schedule, it’s the easiest option (however, if you can afford time for a visit, it’s even better!) In this study, scientists made mothers watch recordings of their babies as well as unfamiliar babies, each during solitary play. The mothers showed stronger dopamine responses to the videos of the children they had bonded with. These findings show that an affective bond between individuals triggers dopamine release (and therefore pleasure) even from indirect interaction between them. Therefore, don’t wait and go have a lengthy conversation with the person on your mind!

5. Live, Laugh, Laugh More

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This article from Psychology Today says it all. Of course, I still I have more details for you.

Laughter has been found to decrease 3,4-dihydrophenylacetic acid (DOPAC), a major dopamine catabolite, meaning that less dopamine is “broken down” (catabolized) into other compounds. Stress increases DOPAC, and its decrease means a reversal of its effects. Since dopamine isn’t as much catabolized because of stress, that means that more of it is available to bind with receptors.

It might be a bit of a stretch to say that laughing will chase the snacking impulses away, but the aim here it to help chase away the source of the impulses: boredom due to understimulation and lack of dopamine. You can either temporarily fill that void with chocolate or with a little bit of laughter yoga. Additionally, the euphoria could help with emotional and stress eating too, since it reduces said stress. And, of course, it’s another distraction.

If you’re struggling to get started, an external trigger can do just fine: a comedy movie, a sit-com, silly videos or reading jokes… If you’re a writer, why not mix in tip #1 and write your own comedy?

6. Play With a Dog (Or Another Pet)

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Do you have a furry (or not) friend? Well, time to show them how much they mean to you! They might not understand your words, but they’ll be happy to give the love back tenfold. Aside from the bonding point in tip #4, it will reduce your stress greatly, in addition to releasing a healthy dose of feel-good dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin… and a whole lot of other health benefits.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be a dog; any kind of pet will do the trick. I, personally, used to have rats as pet, and hadn’t felt happier for a while before adopting them.

While you may give them more attention than usual to distract yourself from grabbing a snack, I’m sure they’ll appreciate one themselves.

7. Music Heals the Soul… Literally

Okay, I’ve tried this one myself (and the rest as well), and somehow it doesn’t always work. I’ve noticed it does best when I’m really focused on the song, which happens in two cases: either it’s a new song that catches my interest, or I really like it but haven’t “overlistened” to it yet. I’ll let you experiment and see what works for you. My opinion on this is that being immersed in the activity (or any of the others we previously saw) makes you forget about snacking while killing time.

Moving on to the resource where you can learn more about musical appreciation and dopamine. Apparently, music that gives you the “chills” is associated with higher dopamine and a stronger feeling of pleasure. Giving a dopamine antagonist reduced those chills and the reported amount of pleasure, further proving the correlation between the neurotransmitter and music.

8. Have a Healthy… Snack

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There’s snacking and snacking. While food itself can’t be categorized in “good or bad” boxes, you can develop bad eating habits, which include excessive consumption of and snacking too often on less healthy options. An occasional sweet treat can’t do much harm, but that occasion turning into a routine definitely can.

What can you do when the cravings just won’t go away? Well, you grab a healthier snack. A good option would be tyrosine-rich foods. Tyrosine is an amino acid and a precursor to dopamine, and there is a possibility that cosuming it would lead to an increased production of dopamine.

Some tyrosine-rich foods are soy products, nuts, seeds, whole grains, milk, cheese, eggs, fish and meat… Be creative with that and make yourself something you enjoy!

Additionally, the precursor to tyrosine is phenylalanine, which can be found in protein-rich foods like the ones mentioned above.

Plus, you still get dopamine when you eat healthy. Eating is essential to survival.

The Bottom Line

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There are lots of alternatives to unhealthy snacking, including healthier snacking. The alternatives presented in this post not only replace the satisfaction brought by sweet and fatty treats, they also provide an enriching distraction.

Of course, everyone’s relationship with food is different. If you feel that you struggle with yours, seeking professional guidance could be beneficial. Health might come first, but the word itself represents many different aspects of human wellbeing. Therefore, avoiding all unhealthy foods and exercising intensely every day might not be that beneficial if you’re hating it. That being said, neither are boredom and emotional snacking. It’s all about balance.

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