Food is an essential part of life. We need to have it every day, and we couldn’t live without it, so it’s natural to think about food on a regular basis. However, thinking about food constantly and obsessively can become a problem when it disrupts our daily lives or is indicative of other problems. But what is the best strategy for how to stop thinking about food?
Food plays a central role in many ceremonies, traditions, rituals, and other social gatherings across nearly every culture on earth. And there are many reasons why people think about food regularly.
Food is so centrally important to humans that the brain actually has two different—though related—neurological pathways dedicated to its regulation and consumption. (1)
The first of these is called the homeostatic pathway. It represents the basest reasons for thinking about food, i.e. that the body needs energy and it is time to eat.
When some time has passed since your last meal or snack , your brain will use this pathway to signal that it’s time to eat. Hormones are released down the homeostatic pathway to stimulate appetite, resulting in the feeling of hunger—and, almost always, thoughts about food.
A second neurological pathway can also trigger thoughts of food. This link is called the hedonic pathway and it is related to the pleasurable aspects of food.
The hedonic pathway is particularly triggered by energy-dense and delicious tasting foods. Eating these foods can result in the release of “feel good” chemicals down this pathway, as a reward for finding such effective sources of energy. (1)
The pleasure derived from sensory aspects of delicious food and the release of certain neurotransmitters in response to them can sometimes motivate eating in the absence of physical hunger. This can be especially true when certain physical settings or emotional states trigger associations with specific enjoyable foods, or when advertisements increase our interest in the foods they are trying to sell. (2,3)
Eating in the absence of hunger at times, especially on special occasions, is common and does not necessarily indicate an unhealthy relationship with food. However, some people find themselves frequently engaging in compulsive eating and/or relying on the pleasure of food to help them get through particularly stressful or emotional situations.
Individuals who use eating as their only or primary coping mechanism for difficult situations and emotions may find themselves thinking about food when these situations arise, even in the absence of hunger, in anticipation of either the pleasure of eating or the relief from distress.
Thoughts about food can also arise from a variety of social factors. People need to feed themselves—and, often, their family—every day, causing them to think about what food they have at home, what food they need to get at the grocery store, what food they should have bought, and any number of other food-related thoughts.
Food also plays a substantial role in many people’s social lives. These thoughts could be related to the need to make or bring food to a social gathering, finding something to eat at a restaurant, or eating food someone else has prepared.
Many factors can increase distress or obsession around navigating foods in social situations. There are many cultural expectations tied to food-centric scenarios, and navigating these situations while being unable or unwilling to eat certain foods can be stressful and time consuming. Some people need to avoid or limit certain foods for medical reasons like allergies or intolerances, and they may need to engage in extensive pre-planning for food related events to protect their health and safety.
People who have eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors may also experience substantial stress and engage in extensive planning around social interactions involving food. Restricting food can result in increased thoughts and feelings of obsession around food due to physiological deprivation. And people who are eating enough to meet their physiological needs but restricting specific types of food may also have obsessive or constant thoughts about these “forbidden” foods.
Fixating on food—be it counting calories, concentrating on how much is eaten or should be eaten on a given day, or any other preoccupying thoughts on the subject—can be a sign of an eating disorder. Obsessive preoccupation with food can be present in many different types of eating disorders and occur in people of all different sized bodies, all of whom deserve help and support.
If you or a loved one are fixating on food and exhibiting other potential signs of an eating disorder, it’s important to seek out help as soon as possible.
For individuals not experiencing eating disorders, here are some strategies to make sure that you are not mentally or physically restricting and to reduce obsessive thoughts about food.
So, what are the steps in learning how to stop thinking about food? One approach for creating a healthier relationship with food is intuitive eating. This approach helps people learn to tune into their own body for an understanding of when they’re hungry, how hungry they are, and what types of food they want.
The practice of intuitive eating can be challenging , especially at first. It may involve examining the many ways that diet culture has created feelings of shame around hunger, cravings, and enjoyment of food. Many people have heard so many messages from the diet industry about how to control or eliminate hunger that they are scared of tuning into their bodies' hunger cues. Other people may not have regular hunger cues due to a history of disordered eating or other medical conditions.
An important part of intuitive eating is making sure that you are eating enough food to meet your body’s needs and not physically or mentally restricting. As discussed earlier in this article, both physical and mental restriction can lead to obsessive thoughts about food and may result in feeling out of control around food. Eating adequately and consistently, making sure no foods are off-limits (unless there is a medical need to avoid them, like an allergy), and giving full permissions to honor specific food cravings can be helpful steps for moving away from restriction and towards a more intuitive relationship with food.
Having a healthy relationship with food can look different ways for different people. For some people, practicing intuitive eating will, over time, lead to an approach to eating that satisfies their physical needs and enables food to be a source of pleasure and connection. An intuitive relationship with food can incorporate flexibility, responding to cravings without judgment, and thinking about food in relation to logistics and enjoyment but without obsessing over it.
Other people may need more structure to make sure that they are eating an amount and variety of foods to meet their nutritional needs. People who have a history of eating disorders or disordered behaviors, people with certain health conditions, and people who have a limited palate may need to be more intentional about what and when they eat to make sure they are getting enough energy and nutrients. It may be helpful for these individuals to work with a registered dietitian to develop strategies to meet their nutritional needs without having to think about food constantly.
Mindful eating has emerged as a popular strategy to help with being fully present and engaged while eating.
Borrowing from other mindfulness practices, which stress the importance of observing and absorbing the present moment, mindful eating is about paying greater attention to the eating experience. Followers are asked to consider the taste, texture, and smell of every bite, rather than being preoccupied with shame, anxiety, or judgment about food and eating.
Mindful eating can be helpful for some people working to develop an intuitive relationship with food based on learning how certain foods make them feel mentally and physically, and how to respond to hunger and fullness cues, instead of making decisions about food based on diet culture messages. People who are working towards repairing their relationship with food after a history of dieting or disordered eating may not be ready to try mindful eating because they are still adjusting to what it feels like to eat enough food, which can be scary and uncomfortable for a while.
Even people who eat intuitively and are able to be present and mindful while eating think about food daily because it is an essential part of life that requires planning and preparation and can also involve connection and pleasure. But if you find yourself thinking about food constantly and obsessively, and if this creates distress and disruption in your life, it could be a sign of restriction, disordered eating, or other mental health challenges. If this is the case, help is available and we encourage you to reach out for support. Everyone deserves to nourish their body and enjoy food without obsession and distress.