Food is necessary for survival, so it’s normal for us to think about it. However, sometimes thoughts about food can become all-encompassing and overwhelming. On average, people with a healthy relationship with food may spend some time considering or planning their next meal as it approaches while someone with an intense preoccupation may spend almost all day thinking about food. It’s important to be aware of these thoughts—they could be a sign that you need more food or, possibly, that you are struggling with disordered eating. If this sounds like you, know that there are ways to help manage these thoughts! You can discuss any concerns you may have about disordered eating with your doctor, a registered dietitian, and/or a licensed therapist or counselor; or, if you’re just looking for effective strategies or would like some tips in the meantime, see the ideas below to help manage your thoughts about food.
1. Make sure you’re eating enough.
Thinking about food constantly is often an indicator that you aren’t eating enough of it! Ask yourself if you’ve been eating consistently and adequately throughout the day—as in, three meals each day and maybe a snack or two between meals, depending on your hunger cues. Often when we go on a diet that restricts our caloric intake, we can experience an increase in our thoughts about food. This shift is simply our body and brain trying to send us signals that we may need more food. While it can seem frustrating to have increased thoughts about food, this is a protective and useful biological mechanism (even when it doesn’t feel like it!). Our bodies don’t know the difference between a voluntary diet and true starvation, so when we cut back on or otherwise modify our typical food intake, our body (and brain) work to ensure we are well fed.
2. Eat a variety of foods and avoid restricting foods for non-medical reasons.
Sometimes we may be eating enough calories but omitting certain foods or food groups, which can leave us feeling deprived. In fact, research shows that undereating, restricting calories, and/or cutting out certain foods can cause us to have an increased preoccupation with those foods and end up overeating them later. For example, maybe you’ve been restricting yourself to only eating protein and vegetables while severely limiting your grains and fat intake. This may naturally cause you to think about the foods you’re missing more often, since all macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—are essential to our diet. To eat healthfully and achieve nutritional balance, try focusing on eating a variety of foods, instead of restricting certain foods or food groups.
3. Recognize your triggers and get to the root.
When life gets stressful, we need ways to cope. Some people find that either restricting food or reaching for it in the absence of hunger can soothe uncomfortable feelings or situations, but these are not the most helpful ways to cope long-term. Take time to identify the situations or circumstances that leave you wanting to control your food choices in less-than-helpful ways, and don’t forget to give yourself grace here! Getting to the root of these choices can help you figure out where to go—whether that means broadening the foods you eat if you’ve been restricting; creating more balanced meals; utilizing distraction techniques (like calling a friend or going for a short walk) when you feel the urge to eat in the absence of hunger; or reaching out to a professional for additional support.
4. Identify and stop the guilt and shame cycle.
No matter the reason for any increased thoughts about food, these thoughts can feel intrusive. It’s common to find yourself in a cycle of restriction, deprivation, eating (or overeating), feeling guilt or shame after doing so, and then vowing to never feel this way again. The problem is, we can’t solve a roller-coaster relationship with food by restriction—the associated shame may leave us feeling helpless and more likely to struggle with food in the future. In fact, one recent study examined weight-related shame and guilt, intuitive eating, and binge eating in young women college students and found that weight-related guilt and shame were both associated with greater binge-eating symptoms. Interestingly, intuitive eating behaviors have been found to reduce weight-related shame and binge eating.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
You may need to seek additional help. Remember: It’s challenging for all of us to navigate healthful eating and nutritious food choices in today’s world, and it’s okay if you need some guidance from a professional. If you find yourself overwhelmed by thoughts about food, speak with your doctor and seek out a registered dietitian (and perhaps, also, a licensed therapist or counselor) who has experience working with individuals struggling with disordered eating.