Is Boredom Fueling Obesity?

Boredom can certainly be a factor in eating, but is it a significant factor in obesity? Clinicians will tell you that mindless eating when bored is something they frequently see in people with obesity. But in fact, boredom’s role in obesity has received relatively little attention in research.

Experts in the subject tell us that the potential for boredom is everywhere: at work, at school, and at leisure. It’s important to distinguish between situations that bore people — think about your last conference call — and a person’s susceptibility to being bored. Boring situations, boring people, boring classes, and boring jobs have been with us forever. It’s tough to find any reason to believe that boredom is on the rise. In fact, the Gallup organization tracks engagement at work and tells us that engagement (not boredom) is at the highest levels they’ve seen since they started tracking it in 2000. Then again, that’s not saying much, because this record level of engagement at work is only 32%.

It’s your response to boredom that seems to matter most. Research has shown that being bored can be an important stimulus for creativity and innovation. It can also be a risk factor for poor health outcomes. The difference is in how you respond.

Unfortunately some people are biologically prone to get stuck in boredom and to cope through emotional eating. Last year, Richard Gill published a study in Obesity suggesting that people with a specific genetic defect — one associated with obesity — may be more susceptible to eating in the absence of hunger, as a response to being bored.

In an even more recent study, Amanda Crockett found a significant relationship between susceptibility to boredom, problems with emotional regulation, and emotional eating. Likewise, Andrew Moynihan found that boredom can be a key factor for unhealthy eating. But they also found that interventions with interesting, healthy food can blunt this effect.

Boredom is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But becoming aware of how we naturally respond can help us adapt and benefit.

“When you pay attention to boredom it gets unbelievably interesting.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn

Click here for more on boredom from BBC, here for Gill’s study, here for Crockett’s study, and here for Moynihan’s study.

Bored, photograph © Phil Romans / flickr

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2 Responses to “Is Boredom Fueling Obesity?”

  1. June 04, 2015 at 3:49 pm, Rosa Aspalter said:

    how do you solve the dilemma: if people are bored, they eat. if people have to much stress, they eat…?

    • June 04, 2015 at 5:46 pm, Ted said:

      Good question, Rosa. Both phenomena seem linked to emotional eating. Clinicians would be the best ones to tell you about helping people deal with this issue.