Do You Eat Because You're Hungry Or Just Bored? How To Tell + What Can Help
We all engage in mindless snacking from time to time, whether it's downing a bag of popcorn in front of the TV or reaching for a piece of chocolate to get through an afternoon of work. This type of eating can stem from boredom and is often framed as a "guilty pleasure"—but don't beat yourself up. The brain's metabolic, cognitive, and reward mechanisms are all interconnected, which can make appetite regulation all the more challenging.
The science behind appetite regulation.
The biological and psychological regulation of appetite and how they implicate metabolic health are hot topics in the science world right now. But they're also incredibly complex, so researchers' understanding of how the brain helps regulate hunger is still growing.
There are many biological inputs that affect appetite regulation1:
- Stress levels
- Hormones (e.g., thyroid, sex, hunger, adrenal, etc.)
- Long-term energy reserves in adipose tissue (i.e., stored body fat)
- Energy-demanding lean muscle mass
- Gut-brain axis (nutrient sensing and availability)
- Senses (e.g., taste, smell, texture, sight)
- Individual metabolic requirements (based on body composition, energy expenditure and intake, your resting energy expenditure, etc.)
- Establishment of taste and food preference (i.e., how your brain associates food with certain experiences)
Appetite regulation involves brain circuits that process signals of nutritional state and food reward value. In other words, both homeorhetic eating (consumption of food to maintain energy homeostasis) and hedonic eating (consumption of food for pleasure) are processed using the same neural activity.
As you can imagine, simply eating to "fuel your body" isn't very realistic—unless, of course, you find yourself also enjoying nutrient-dense food so your brain's reward system is nurtured simultaneously. This is why so many functional dietitians encourage finding healthy foods and flavors you love—and why cutting out entire foods or food categories can be unsustainable and unsatisfying.
How eating out of boredom affects hunger hormones.
Boredom eating—whether because you're more stressed out than normal, feeling sad, or simply enjoy the flavor and experience of your snack—can be filed firmly under the "hedonic eating" category.
And if you find yourself eating hedonistically more often than homeorhetically, you may struggle to tune in to hunger and satiety cues. This is because the three main hunger hormones that regulate our appetite—ghrelin, leptin, and insulin—are heavily affected by our diet and eating habits:
- Ghrelin is the "hunger" hormone. It's released when the stomach is empty, and levels decrease once the stomach has stretched.
- Leptin is the "satiety" hormone. It's produced by adipose tissue (i.e., fat cells) and notifies the brain when there's enough body fat stored so you don't overeat.
- Insulin is the "storage" hormone. It's released by the pancreas to help your cells take in glucose from the bloodstream to be used as energy or stored as glycogen in the liver.
When these hormones fluctuate due to internal factors (e.g., reduced leptin and insulin sensitivity) and/or external factors (e.g., diet, physical activity), it can affect our ability to identify feelings of hunger and satiety:
- When you eat "empty calories" (i.e., simple carbohydrates, sugary treats, etc.), your stomach doesn't stretch much, resulting in static ghrelin levels that can leave you hungry after a carb-heavy meal or snack.
- If your energy (i.e., calorie) intake is higher than your energy expenditure (i.e., how many calories you burn), the surplus of energy lessens the influence leptin and insulin have on appetite regulation. In other words, it's more difficult for your brain to receive satiety cues, which can lead to food intake and body composition changes.
How to tune in to your hunger cues again.
People can become disconnected from their hunger signals for a variety of reasons—including fluctuating hormone levels, unsustainable diets (i.e., the especially restrictive kind), calorie counting, and emotional eating.
The good news? We can learn how to tune back in to our hunger cues using mindful practices that help familiarize us with the internal sensations associated with changes in our leptin and ghrelin levels:
- What hunger feels like: While hunger may seem synonymous with a rumbling stomach, dietitian nutritionist Courtney Vickery, M.S., R.D., L.D., explains that hunger can actually manifest in a variety of physical and emotional side effects. "For example, you may start to feel tired or irritable or have trouble concentrating if you're hungry," she explains. "Paying attention to these subtle cues can help you better regulate your eating habits."
- What satiety (aka fullness) feels like: According to Vickery, satiety can be categorized by a feeling of contentment and satisfaction. "You may notice that your stomach feels comfortably full or that you no longer have the urge to eat. Paying attention to these cues can help you avoid overeating," she shares.
Vickery recommends practicing interoceptive awareness—i.e., paying attention to the physical sensations in our bodies (hunger pangs, feelings of fullness, and energy levels)—to start reconnecting with your hunger cues. "By tuning in to these cues, we can start eating in response to our hunger instead of eating based on external cues like the time of day or what's available," she adds.
While there are many different interoceptive awareness exercises you can try, keeping a hunger journal is a good place to start, Vickery shares. Every time you feel hunger pangs, take a few minutes to jot down what you're feeling physically and emotionally. Over time, you'll start to notice patterns in your hunger cues and learn how to better respond to them.
If you're having trouble tuning in, functional medicine nutritionist Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS, recommends giving your brain a little bit of time to process hunger cues. "It takes about 15 minutes for the body to recognize food signals. Therefore, it's best to take your time and eat slowly to allow your brain to catch up with your stomach," she explains.
All that said, tuning back in to hunger cues can be challenging—even after implementing mindfulness practices. If you're looking for additional support to complement your foundational metabolic health habits (i.e., nutrient-dense diet, healthy sleep habits, physical activity, proper hydration, stress management), a high-quality targeted supplement like mbg's metabolism+ can help.
How metabolism+ promotes appetite regulation.
This is not one of those scary diet pills of the '80s and '90s! mbg's revolutionary metabolism+ formula features clinically backed doses of premium plant ingredients (i.e., cayenne pepper, veld grape, grains of paradise, and EGCG and caffeine from green tea) that support a healthy, balanced appetite and nourish our metabolic health from multiple angles.*
Cayenne pepper and its bioactive capsaicinoids promote appetite regulation and feelings of fullness2—which, in turn, helps support energy balance3 (i.e., expenditure vs. intake).*
Veld grape also promotes energy balance and healthy appetite hormone levels (namely, adiponectin, which increases insulin sensitivity, and serotonin, which helps curb cravings).*
Grains of paradise enhances whole-body energy expenditure and activates brown adipose tissue (in both males4 and females).*
Caffeine and EGCG from green tea help increase 24-hour energy expenditure5 and have also been shown to bolster appetite regulation when combined with capsaicin.*
Tuning in to our body's hunger signals is an important part of metabolic health and optimization. When we become disconnected from these internal signals, it becomes far more difficult to differentiate homeorhetic hunger from hedonistic hunger. This can lead to eating out of boredom, unconscious snacking, and other eating habits that can make us feel detached from our bodies.
If you're looking for a holistic and innovative solution to help you regulate appetite and tune in to your hunger cues, mbg's metabolism+ fits the bill: With evidence-backed ingredients like cayenne pepper, veld grape, grains of paradise, and EGCG and caffeine from green tea at efficacious doses, this targeted metabolic health supplement promotes healthy hormone levels, increases metabolic rate, reduces adipose tissue accumulation, and supports healthy body composition.*
Looking to add more tools to your metabolism tool belt? Check out mbg's picks for the best metabolism supplements on the market to find the perfect product for your metabolic health needs.
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.