So there you sit, somehow still hungry. You just ate an entire meal an hour ago, yet you find yourself curiously driven to eat again, or at least snack on something. Maybe it’s at night, watching your favorite programs on your DVR. Maybe it’s in the afternoon at work after lunch. Whatever the case, we are often hungry, or at least driven to eat, in times when we’ve just had food and are clearly well fed at the moment. Is this actual hunger or something else?
It turns out that a good portion of the time, your brain is playing games with you. What you think is hunger, is actually boredom. Your brain is under-stimulated and wants a dose of the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is one chemical your brain uses to communicate and plays a vital role in cognition, motivation, memory, sleep, mood, and ultimately behavior. Perhaps its most important function is in learning and why we are driven to accomplish goals and seek rewards. Dopamine is the chemical released when your brain wants to create a behavioral pattern. If dopamine is released every time you do a certain behavior, you can be almost certain you will go back to this behavior again and again. That’s good when it comes to survival-based behaviors like eating, drinking, mating, and acquiring resources like money. But it can also lead to harmful addictive behaviors and yes, eating even when we’re not hungry. And what foods cause the largest dopamine release in the brain? High fat, high sugar foods, the exact type that we should try and avoid. This feedback system developed evolutionarily when humans didn’t live in a time of plenty, so their brains drove them to consume as much as they could when food was available, especially energy-dense foods like things high in fat or sugar. But this behavior is deadly in a world like we live in today, where an unlimited amount of unhealthy options are always readily available. Another important point to keep in mind about dopamine is that while it does motivate us to seek rewards, it doesn’t actually make us feel good once we get the reward. So what can we do to perhaps override this system and make better choices?
One of the best ways is to always try and be mindful about food. No matter what you eat, it is important to at least always pay attention and be conscious about your meal. What is it? Is it helping you achieve your goals? Where are you eating? Who are you with? How are you eating? Are you still eating because you’re hungry or are you now a runaway freight train, consuming everything within arm’s reach? When was the last time you ate? When do you think you’ll eat next?
If you’ve just recently eaten a wholesome, nutritious meal and find yourself hungry soon after, consider the possibility that you’re probably just bored. And yes, food will fix your boredom. But so will many others things. More than being hungry for food, your brain is hungry for excitement. So go take a bike ride or go to the gym. Read a good book. Call a friend and say what’s up. Go run some errands or get some housework done. Heck, even clean something. These are all healthy ways to cure boredom. But dopamine has a dark side too, and could motivate you to use drugs or alcohol, gamble, go shopping for things you don’t need, or engage in other risky and/or destructive behaviors.
So if you have been finding it hard to achieve your dietary and health goals, consider that this common pitfall could be sabotaging your best efforts. Next time you’re hungry, say to yourself, “Self, are you actually hungry or are you just bored?” If you suspect boredom, try and engage in a healthy activity that you know you’ll enjoy doing and see if the hunger is still there after that. If it is, then sure, have what would hopefully be at least a somewhat healthy snack. But you’ll probably find that most of the time, your brain was just playing hunger games with you and you were actually just bored all along.
Article Courtesy: Andrew Steingrube