More often than not, "emotional eating" has negative associations, conjuring up clichéd scenes from films: our star character sobbing into tubs of ice cream, packets of crisps or cakes.
However, the reality of the term can be rather more mundane. Emotional eating occurs in a variety of scenarios including – yes – when we're struck by sadness or anxiety, but also when we're just plain bored. And now that many of us are working from home due to the coronavirus lockdown, it's easier than ever to indulge.
Clinical psychologists and dietitians have long been interested in the connection between human emotion and addictive food behaviours, and many studies have found that boredom is a top trigger for snacking. Some suggest that people in certain states of boredom are just as likely to drift toward the fridge than those experiencing sadness, anxiety and depression.
In fact, certain studies have demonstrated that increased boredom is significantly associated with high consumption of fats and carbohydrates; the greater the state of boredom, the more unhealthy snack foods we eat.
Factor in increased anxiety at a time like this and unrestricted access to the kitchen while working from home, and even people who would normally follow a disciplined regime may find they are struggling.
"There's a major lack of routine," admits Slimming World member Philippa Burton, 51, coupled with "instant access to the fridge. I know better, but things have been rocky for me professionally since the pandemic began, and an apple just doesn't cut it when compared to a nice chocolate eclair".
Burton, who is self-employed, admits that the lockdown has only amplified her tendency to snack – "I feel so much pressure to stay on the computer all day; I am looking for work constantly. But it only takes a couple of minutes before I'm looking out of the window, doing anything to get away from it" – a scenario many of us will be familiar with.
Raiding the fridge or playing with a phone are common actions in the apathetic state of boredom; it will have us looking for absolutely anything to escape the task we don't want to perform, including eating when we're not hungry.
For dietitians, the connection is hardly surprising, and nor is our preference for higher-fat, higher-carb foods. "There are chemicals in the brain that are linked to emotional eating," says Dahlia Kulkarni, a registered dietitian and founder of The Dietitian's Room London.
"Serotonin is a chemical which plays a major role in human emotion and general mood. It is made with a part of protein called tryptophan and this can enter the brain when carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten. This may explain the need to eat sweet, comfort foods."
Fellow dietitian and founder of Inspire Dietetic Consultancy, Kate Nelson, agrees.
"Comfort foods are linked to happier memories, so if a patient is feeling low then I find they often reach for foods that remind them of birthday parties to relive the joy of that memory," she says.
So how can we break the cycle of excessive snacking?
1. Sit it out
"We're living in times of increased stress and anxiety and this can cause the stress hormone cortisol, which helps to break down carbohydrate and fat, to rise," Nelson explains. "But there is hope!" Nelson points to evidence that suggests "sitting out your cravings [when you aren't hungry] for at least half an hour can quieten the urge."
2. Breakfast like a king
"Having a well-balanced, filling breakfast can definitely help to stave cravings until mid-afternoon," says Nelson. "Try something that is high in energy like eggs, avocado and grains. This not only keeps you going until lunchtime, but staves off cravings for unhealthy snacking foods."
3. Put on your trainers
Use your daily exercise quota as a distraction from boredom or worries. Going for a run, Nelson explains, "is a natural mood booster." Cardio exercise like running can release endorphins in the brain that give a real mood boost. Aerobic exercise, for example, "has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress," according to the Harvard Medical School blog, Mind and Mood. When you feel boredom kicking in, distract yourself with exercise, and soon you'll be feeling better.
4. Find something healthier
We are not always tempted to eat sugar-laden food when looking for a snack; studies have found people will reach for "more exciting" healthy foods as opposed to unhealthy snacks if there are any available. By replacing less healthy options with something more thrilling, the common side effects of certain stages of boredom (sensation-seeking, for example) are fulfilled. Nelson suggests meal planning as a way to avoid cravings.
"Plan everything you're going to eat that week, right down to the snacks," she says. "I have two kids at home and it's sometimes really difficult to avoid the snack cupboard but if I have a meal plan that includes snacks between meals, I'm less likely to raid it."
Interesting healthy snacks such as vegetable crisps are a great choice for those wanting a flavourful salt hit, while a pre-mixed fruit salad that is already wrapped in the fridge is perfect on-the-go food.
"Berries, fruit, unsalted nuts, olives, and wholemeal and seeded crackers with hummus", are all good options, says Kulkarni.
5. Sip a glass of water
You'd be surprised how many times we mistake hunger for thirst. "Next time you feel a craving, try having a glass of water", advises Kulkarni. Keeping a glass or bottle of water on your desk can prevent unwanted trips to the fridge.