08/08/2013 01:12 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

How to Cope With Boredom Eating

On a recent Am I Hungry? Facebook poll, I asked: "What are your top three triggers for overeating?" Tied for first place were boredom and stress, which ironically, are opposites: too much and not enough. I covered stress in a previous post. Let's explore boredom eating.

Eating Cures Boredom

The problem is that when you stop eating, you're bored again. So you have to eat again! (That's why I call it an overeating cycle.)

Eating is only one of a thousand things to do when you're bored. If you're not hungry, you can choose to redirect your attention by making a conscious decision to focus on an activity other than eating (or thinking about eating).

Better Ways to Cure Boredom

Finding something to do besides eat isn't about willpower. Willpower is a limited resource. It's about expanding your options beyond food and building a bigger life. Here are some specific strategies to help, from chapter three of my book Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat:

  • Take out a piece of paper and make a list of activities that appeal to you using the following suggestions. Brainstorm a variety of ideas to ensure that you'll come up with something that will fit depending on your mood or situation.
  • Write down both simple and more complex ideas and both quick and time-consuming activities.
  • Be sure to include a few ideas that don't require any preparation or equipment.
  • Have different ideas for home, work and other settings.
  • Use your imagination. One of our "Am I Hungry?" workshop participants, an engineer, kept little construction toys on her desk to play with when she felt like eating.
  • Choose activities that are enjoyable -- or at least not unpleasant. If you're going to make a choice not to eat, the alternative must be at least somewhat appealing.
  • Have plenty of eating-incompatible activities. This is any activity that requires your hands or full attention. For example, it's difficult to eat while you're playing the piano, building something or sewing.
  • Choose a few ideas from your list and have everything you'll need ready to go. For instance, if you plan to play a game of solitaire, keep the cards nearby. If you're going to try meditation, do a little reading about it ahead of time so you know what to do.
  • Keep a "redirection kit" or drawer in your home or office stocked with things to do: stationery, a favorite book, puzzles, tools, crafts or anything else that appeals to you.
  • Establish a food-free zone at home and at work. Create a pleasant, comfortable space that you don't associate with eating. Promise yourself you'll never eat in that place, though drinking water, tea or coffee there is fine. Keep your redirection kit there so you can retreat to your food-free zone while the urge to eat passes.
  • Promise yourself you'll try to redirect your attention for at least a little while. Although it's easier to eat, you stay trapped in an overeating cycle when you do.
  • Try to redirect your attention away from eating even if it is for only a few minutes at first. For example, say to yourself, "I'll work on this puzzle for 10 minutes, then see how I feel." You'll quickly discover that you can postpone eating with no adverse consequences and that will encourage you to try it again next time, too.

Remember, you are redirecting your attention away from food because you don't need it yet, not because you are depriving yourself. Remind yourself that you'll eat when you're hungry, and in the meantime, you are building a bigger life!

For more by Michelle May, M.D., click here.

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