The monotony of pandemic life has left many of us reaching for the snack jar.
In a new Europe-wide survey, Brits reported the largest rise in consumption of convenience foods (29%), alcohol (29%) and “tasty treats” (34%). While 42% of us have spent more time experimenting with recipes while staying at home, our snacking has also increased by 27%, according to the research led by Aarhus University in Denmark.
And it’s all too common to eat more – or less healthily – when we’re bored, dietician and BDA spokesperson Rebecca McManamon tells HuffPost UK.
Over a quarter of people feel they ate less healthily than usual during the first lockdown, according to a separate YouGov survey of more than 2,000 adults. And of those, 63% attributed their shift in eating habits to boredom. Research has also shown we tend to consume more calories during the winter months – with comfort food, whether sweet or savoury, fully living up to its promise.
We’re not anti-snacking here at HuffPost – as you can tell from our enthusiastic Christmas taste tests – and if there was ever a time to treat yourself, it’s now.
That said, coronavirus has given us all a wake-up call to look after our health – and many people report feeling anxious to stay mindful of their eating habits.
So, why do we boredom eat?
There’s little firm evidence for why boredom increases eating, but anecdotally we know there are several possible reasons.
“It may be simply down to monotony, not having anything else planned to do, but there may be an underlying reason, such as feeling low in mood,” says McManamon. “Or it may be that we link eating as a habit to other activities, such as having a snack whilst watching TV, which more people may do when they are bored in lockdown.”
Eating because of boredom – or any emotion – isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says dietician Bahee Van de Bor. But it depends on “what you eat and how often”.
“Research suggests that emotional eaters are much more likely to eat sweets and high-fat foods and also snack more,” she says.
How to tell if you’re hungry or bored
A simple distraction technique will help you to identify whether you’re bored, or really do need to eat something,” McManamon says.
This might be something really simple like sending a text message to a friend, she says – or reading, doing a household chore, meditating or praying, playing a game, listening to music, or going for a short walk. “It is good to build up a repertoire of things that work for you as an individual. If after the task you have forgotten about eating, chances you were not truly hungry.”
Van de Bor suggests that it can also be handy to think about your hunger on a scale from one to 10 – one being very hungry and 10 being full and satisfied.
“If you score your feelings of hunger as five and above, then you are probably not hungry,” she says. “Sometimes, thirst is often mistaken for hunger. So if you’ve just eaten a meal or snack, reach for a drink. This will help you decide whether your desire to eat is triggered by emotion and boredom... or thirst.”
Give yourself a break
There’s nothing wrong with eating for enjoyment – food should be a joy. But if you’re worried that you are boredom eating and it’s not going to bring you longterm happiness, think about switching things up.
“Make sure that the fruit bowl and cupboards are well stocked with fruit, high fibre crackers and other nutritious snacks so you always have pre-planned foods that you can eat when the munchies hit,” advises Van de Bor.
“Foods that are particularly linked with good mood include oily fish plus fibre, B-vitamin and folate-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.”
None of us has lived through a global pandemic before, McManamon emphasises, so it’s understandable if you’re feeling stressed, bored or anxious – and all of those things may change our eating habits.
“One episode of eating something just because you are bored is unlikely to impact your health overall,” she says. “However, if it is something happening more regularly, it can be helpful to reflect and talk through why it may be happening.” Trusted friends and family might be a good first point of call.
If you feel like your eating is getting out of control, you are eating all the food you have at home, or eating to the point you feel sick or vomit, McManamon says it is important to seek help via your GP or the independent charity Beat.
“Coronavirus is understandably causing a lot of stress and anxiety, and we know that things may feel very uncertain right now,” advises Beat’s website, which has collated a range of guidance and support services for lockdown, both for those who are worried about their own eating – or someone close to them.
Useful websites and helplines:
Beat, Adult Helpline: 0808 801 0677 and Youthline: 0808 801 0711 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (adults) email@example.com (youth support)
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 116 123
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.