Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Boredom + Food = Unhealthy eating habits

Emotional eating is getting a lot of commercial attention these days.  Because of that, I feel like we all have a pretty decent handle on what it means.  Most people I know who struggle with their weight and fitness have some issues related to this. 
Whether you are overweight or underweight, because yes – this applies to the underweight as well, food issues very often can be related to emotional situations.  I am personally connected with people who are unable to eat when they are stressed, sad, angry, etc.  They drop weight rapidly and struggle to put it back on until they are happy again.  For however long that lasts…
Likewise, the overweight have the same issues.  It all comes down to figuring out what triggers your emotional eating and learning alternative coping mechanisms.  As with most things psychological, retraining the brain and the automatic responses we’ve allowed it to adapt is usually the key.  In situations where a genetic or physiological trigger is the problem, you may need additional help from the medical community to control and regulate those responses. 
Those situations are rarer, however, and a little time searching yourself and documenting your eating habits can help you form your own solution.  So, one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I eat when I am bored.  
This is not weird or abnormal, but I can stick to healthy eating like a champ unless I get bored.  Then I start wanting something sweet or fat laden.  It’s almost Pavlovian.  I wonder if as a child I was “mollified” with sweets and fatty foods.  Perhaps even as an infant.  It’s like giving a puppy too many treats during training; they become the fat dog that is constantly begging. 
In doing the 21 day challenge, I’ve been starkly aware of every time I have nothing to do.  Since I can’t snack on anything but veggies and fruit, I am more aware of every time I reach for something and I’m not hungry. 

Shameful admission time:  I’ve made myself sick twice trying to force food in when I was physically full.  I'm not proud of this, nor was it a conscious decision.  So, why would I do that? When I realized it was happening, I stopped immediately but it freaked me out that I could, without thinking about it, do something that is obviously not good for me for no real reason.  It's not like I can't give up foods.  I don't drink soda anymore because I gave it up for 40 days (Lent) and it stuck.  I rarely eat ice cream because milk started upsetting my system and I basically gave it up.  Every now and then I have some because of some random situation, but I don't enjoy it anymore. 

For all these examples, however, I can't give up all cakes / cookies / breads.  I can do it for a while - months even - but I end up going back to it.  For a long time I blamed my severe anemia and a desire to keep my energy up, but really, I think it's more that those foods comfort me in a way other foods cannot.  Others find salty food or fat rich foods do the same for them.  I've known people who would rather just drink coffee and not eat real food if possible because it hits some sort of soothe point in them.  Why do certain foods work this way for certain people? 

So I started reading and found something I think is interesting and true: 
When you're bored, your body wants to increase the dopamine levels to negate the boredom. 

I would imagine this situation is worse when you are sad or grieving as well.  Some interesting reading on the topic:


The medical theory that we chase a dopamine high during boredom makes sense to me.  It’s why people have indiscriminate sex after being single and celibate for a while.  It explains why alcoholics and drug-addicts have to maintain programs to encourage and hold them accountable, because their brains have a natural little reactor that wants feeding.  It doesn’t care if the method you find isn’t healthy – it just wants the reaction.   There are even those people who get addicted to exercise and work out to the point of illness or injury.  They are trying to reach that high.  Only, as any addict would tell you, you can’t recreate the initial high ever again.  You have to find something stronger or more addictive to come close.  With food you search out something more decadent to hit that sensory overload.  This is one reason some doctors theorize that restrictive diets fail - your dopamine levels get so low you are absolutely doomed to go back to eating more of the foods you shouldn't to fill that natural craving.  So when you're bored, you also resort to what has worked in the past, only it never really works and it doesn't last because...
In the end, it doesn’t satisfy nor does it relieve the boredom. 
It also does not provide a sustainable rise to the dopamine levels.
And that’s the crucial part – it doesn’t solve the heart of the problem.  So you keep repeating the trial and error.  The human body in this way, to my way of thinking, becomes stupid at this point.  Because instead of recognizing the innate and potentially fatal damage being done to it, it continues to allow you to chase the high.  If the body suddenly rejected the intake of fatty or sweet foods because it felt it was dangerous; or attacked the food; or sent nervous impulses to your hands and mouth that made you tremble and drop the fork or your mouth refuse to open – wouldn’t that be a warning sign at least? 
It would most likely truly freak you out and you would HAVE to make changes or starve to death.  You would have to do whatever was necessary to rebalance and retrain your system. 

So, that doesn’t happen.  But we’re sentient beings capable of figuring out there is a problem without such volatile physical reactions. (Right?)  And to that end, I started trying to figure out alternatives to teach myself for when I’m bored.

To keep you from having to visit the bookstore, we’ll stick to the online sources.  Here are a few of the links I’ve found on the topic:

My biggest issue with some of these is the oral fixation solutions.  I don’t think continuing the habit of putting something in my mouth when I’m bored, even if it’s gum, is a good choice.  That, in my opinion, should be a last resort.  Here’s what I’ve discovered for me:
  • Exercise of course is the ideal solution, but for some of us exercise does not fill the dopamine requirement.  Sorry, I’ve tried to like it and love it.  I just don’t. 
  • I do find that upbeat music hits some sensory places for me.  So I add that to my potential arsenal for boredom.  Even at work, I can have some CDs available to listen and bounce along.
  • Chatting with someone I like or laughing at a comic is another one that settles that craving.
  • Complex puzzles also fulfills me (and exercises my brain!) so keeping puzzle books or apps on my phone around is smart.
  • Reading a book can do it, so long as the topic is light hearted.  The more serious reading has to wait for another time.  It actually can make me crave unhealthy foods more if I am saddened or stressed.
  • At work, walking away from my desk or sitting in my car for ten minutes can reset me.  Sometimes silence is what’s needed to soothe the gnawing.
  • Drawing, pencil and paper style, just for my own enjoyment or writing for my own enjoyment can be a short term solution.  If I get to into it, I can get stressed and start a whole other domino effect.
  • Going somewhere for a good cry.  I know, it seems silly and girly, but boredom can also be overwhelmed emotions for me.  My brain shuts down on focusing, since surely I have enough to do in my life that I should never truly be bored, because it’s unable to get past some huge issues elsewhere.  A crying jag can release the emotions physically, giving me room to refocus and process.  This shouldn’t be a regular thing, I think, but hey – sometimes it helps.
  • Lastly would be a bottle of water, stick of gum or a protein shake.  But if I’ve tried all of the above and I’m still fixated on food, then maybe I’m just thirsty or hungry after all. 
I feel like if I can retrain my brain’s natural reaction to boredom, I can control my eating in those times.  At least that’s what's been working for me so far.  I find the fact that so many of these choices are also recommended to parents of ADHD children as alternatives to help with their control issues to be fascinating.  The links there, IMO, should be studied. 

I also believe that the rise on addiction to video games is also a player in this realm.  Those games hit the dopamine button for many people.  To the point that they begin to lose time and control over other aspects of their life.   Seriously, someone should be researching this.  If we could find a healthy way, without drug therapy, to help people control and level their dopamine levels without risking addictive behavior patterns and downfalls it could really change a lot in our society.  What do you think?


Unknown said...

The only thing that you said that I personally don't agree with is that you listed getting a bottle of water as a last resort to please the oral fixation. Water is incredibly good for your body, and filling, so staying hydrated is something that you should do on a very regular basis (and most of us aren't so good about doing it...especially during winter/colder months). I don't think drinking water should be looked at quite as negatively or as a last resort as the stick of gum should. But, also, that is just my opinion. :)


Miss Nicki said...

That's a fair comment. I guess I meant as a direct response to being bored, vice a regular food habit. You're correct about people not drinking enough water, however. Thanks for commenting!