In recent decades, global rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease among people have alarmingly skyrocketed in large part due to unhealthy, high-calorie diets and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. However, it is also important to recognize how our reasons for eating the way we do have dramatically changed as well. Significantly, sociocultural trends seem to indicate that more and more people are eating not because they are hungry, but because they are bored.
The psychological reasons why so many of us tend to find ourselves either eating or looking for something to eat when we are not even hungry are as complex as the neurological processes they reflect. Even though scientists are still not entirely sure about the exact relationship between neurology and psychology, our brains’ internal chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, are thought to play a key role. The evidence suggests various neurotransmitters are responsible for delivering the chemical messages between neurons, which ultimately incite our emotions and drive our behavior.
In particular, the neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which is believed to influence things like drive, motivation and pleasure, is thought to be linked to compulsive or excessive eating behavior in some people. Not surprisingly, this hardwired biochemical reward mechanism involving dopamine and evolutionarily beneficial things, such as eating, likely developed as a way to positively reinforce behavior critical for survival. As boredom is typically characterized as an unpleasant state of mind caused by a perceived lack of stimulation, inspiration or motivation, excessive or compulsive eating may be ways of coping by triggering the release of dopamine within our brains.
This psychological motivation to eat is quite different from the physical sensation of actual hunger. Whereas compulsive eating due to boredom or depression is typically considered a psychological expression of one or more neurological processes, the physiological motivation to eat in order to reduce hunger is primarily motivated by blood sugar levels and by hormones produced by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Thus, unlike genuine hunger for food as a source of energy and nutrition, eating as a way to alleviate boredom or depression attempts to fill a void present in our own psyche, not in our stomach.