Coronavirus Chronicles — Depression, Boredom and Eatertainment

The previous post sampled the perspectives of several professionals on the topic of boredom. Consistently, boredom and depression are mentioned in the same breath. Here is another instance of their consanguinity. The addiction treatment center Shades of Hope gives its definition of food addiction:

Food addiction is loss of control over food consumption. Food is used as medication to control and suppress negative feelings such as sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, loneliness or boredom.

There they are, depression and boredom, hanging out together again like besties. Dr. Pretlow has expressed a different perspective. In 2014 he wrote,

More and more in our studies it seems that overeating in young people (and probably in adults as well) is due mainly to nervous eating or boredom, rather than comfort eating (depression) or cravings/addiction.

On another occasion he wrote,

Initially, kids overeat because “the food is there” — it simply tastes good. But once their brains realize that pain, stress, and boredom are eased by the pleasure of the food, this comfort eating behavior will be repeated, typically mindlessly.

Elsewhere this pattern has been called “recreational eating.” All our senses can entertain us, but the consequences vary. We entertain our ears with music, and it’s fairly innocuous at worst, and quite health-inducing at best, if paired up with dance or a workout. We entertain our eyes and brains by watching TV or playing digital games, forms of recreation that are less beneficial to the body as a whole.


And… we can entertain our mouths, as a displacement behavior to ward off depression. The problem is, entertainment partly depends on novelty. But once the novelty value of any particular food wears off, we persist in eating it anyway, because meanwhile, other mechanisms have taken over.

Some obesity experts believe that one of those mechanisms is literal, chemical addiction — to sugar, for instance. But even if sugar is not an actual true physical addictor, it acts enough like one of those to be easily mistaken for it.

In a worst-case scenario, the entertainment value disappears, and constant eating begins to feel like a duty, like a job the person hates but cannot quit. In a strange way, the food becomes almost irrelevant. For a kid with a bag of chips, the hand-to-mouth motion is as soothing as the rocking motion an autistic child might engage in. But there is a major difference, namely, the hundreds of calories introduced into the body of the chip-eater.

Even when experts differ on aspects of the problem, they seem fairly united in recognizing the kinship between boredom and depression. Dr. Pretlow has said the rogue displacement mechanism of overeating can be overcome by distractions.

But distraction only works if the subject is interested in the distractor. We can jangle a bunch of keys in front of a fussy baby, and more than likely, a moment of diversion will result. But from a slightly older child, the key trick might elicit nothing more than blankness tinged with contempt. That kid doesn’t care. Just like a depressed person doesn’t care, just like a bored person doesn’t care. The capacity to be interested is simply not there.

This will be discussed further. Meanwhile, check out “When There Is Nothing to Do but Eat,” a classic Childhood Obesity News post that attracted almost 100 reader comments.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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