Why you can't stop thinking about food (and what to do about it)

Table full of food to show how we can become obsessed with thinking about food.
Image by Rachel Park via Unsplash.

Having thoughts about food is an important part of nourishing our body. However, when your mind is overrun with food chatter, these thoughts become extremely frustrating.

Food chatter is the food related talk in your head and it can show up in different ways. It might be daydreaming about meals, constantly craving chocolate, or being obsessed with when and what you are eating next. Food chatter could also be obsessing over food rules and nutrition advice. For example, what is the “healthiest” milk for your coffee or should you really be having bread with your soup?

Spending so much of your time thinking about food can be exhausting. It also limits the time you spend on other aspects of your life such as planning a holiday, thinking through a complex task at work, or socialising with family and friends. 

This blog will help you turn down the volume on food thoughts and give you back your time and brain space!

Why you can't stop thinking about food

To quiet the food chatter, we first need to understand why you can’t stop thinking about food. There are many reasons your food thoughts are becoming obsessive but here are 4 common reasons.

1. You're not eating enough

Thinking about food is an important aspect of human survival. If we never thought about food, we would have very little motivation to prepare food and eat. Food provides our body with energy and when we are not meeting our energy needs, our brain turns up the dial on food chatter.

Think about a time when you were on a diet or had to fast for a medical procedure. Do you remember how your mind became obsessed with food? You were planning what your first meal would be and even the smell of toast had you drooling. This is completely normal. Your body wanted sustenance so encouraged food thoughts.

It is not only fasting or skipping meals that limits our energy intake. Restricting our portion sizes, calorie counting, or cutting out entire food groups are all common dieting strategies that under fuel our body and increase the food chatter. How might you be restricting your food intake?

2. Your food lacks enjoyment

Even if you are eating enough to meet your body’s energy requirements, your meals may be lacking the satisfaction factor. The satisfaction factor is what allows a meal to taste delicious and satisfy your taste buds. We all have individual food preferences and eating according to those preferences is important to make the meal enjoyable.

This does not mean we must be having a gourmet meal every day, it simply gives us the freedom to add taste and texture to a meal because we enjoy it. This might be topping your pasta with cheese or adding crispy croutons to a soup. 

Unfortunately, dieting and food rules can make us scared to add satisfying components to our meals. In an effort to be good, we avoid these “unhealthy” foods. Meals become bland and boring and the food chatter increases as we think about all the delicious food we wish we could eat.

3. Food is helping you cope with emotions

Food can be a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions. We may find that our food thoughts increase when we are experiencing stress, loneliness, anxiety or sadness. There is nothing wrong with using food to meet our emotional needs, but when we always turn to food this may become distressing and start a cycle of binge-restrict eating.  

To understand if your food thoughts are coming from hunger or emotions, take a moment to ask yourself some questions.

  1. When was the last time I ate? A sudden onset of hunger can be a sign of emotional, rather than hunger eating.
  2. How am I feeling right now? If you have trouble identifying your emotions, you can use an emotion wheel to help. 
  3. Will food help me cope with this emotion?

4. You may have an eating disorder

Food preoccupation is a symptom of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. People with an eating disorder report experiencing obsessive thoughts about food, nutrition and their body size and shape. These food thoughts may be due to the restriction of food or as a way to gain control. These thoughts can cause distress and make it difficult for you to have a normal eating pattern and a healthy relationship with food.

If are concerned you may have an eating disorder, getting support early is the best thing you can do. 

How to stop thinking about food

Now we know what is causing the food chatter, what can we do about it?

Image by Magnet.me via Unsplash

Eat more food

Eating enough is an effective tool to reduce the food chatter. But, this does not mean eating enough according to diet rules or calorie guidelines. We must eat enough to meet our individual needs. The amount of food our body needs changes every day and is influenced by our physical activity levels, our health, and sleep quality.

Learning to recognise your hunger and fullness signals can be a powerful way to understand if you are eating enough. Hunger is not just a grumbling stomach. It also shows up in subtle ways such as difficulty concentrating, feeling tired, or a shift in your mood. Similarly, fullness is not simply a stuffed stomach. It may be an uptick in your energy levels, improved ability to hold a conversation, or noticing food thoughts subside.

A great way to get started is aiming to eat roughly every 3 hours and to regularly check in with your body and brain. What are your signs of hunger before eating and signs of fullness after eating? With time, you will have a great understanding of your unique hunger and fullness cues.

Break the food rules

It is time to be a diet rebel and break those restrictive food rules. 

What food rules are you following?

  • No carbs after 4pm.
  • No “junk food” during the week.
  • Only low-fat dairy.
  • You can only eat between 12pm and 8pm.
  • No added sugar.

There are so many ways rules infiltrate our food choices. We assume that following rules will make it easier to eat well but it can make eating harder and increase our food chatter. 

Breaking the food rules and adding the satisfaction back into eating reduces our obsession with those forbidden foods. I know it can be hard to break strongly held rules and beliefs about food. Start by picking a food rule you feel comfortable breaking. Don’t just break the rule once, but everyday until your body knows that you have really given up that restriction. For example, if you have been avoiding carbs at dinner. Try adding a source of carbohydrates to your dinner meal each day and notice what happens.

Find new coping strategies

If you are struggling with emotional eating, developing new strategies to meet your emotional needs may be helpful. This may be easier said than done and working with a dietitian can help you reflect on your emotions and eating patterns in a non-judgemental way. Understanding your eating patterns and triggers can be a powerful tool in helping you feel in control when it comes to emotional eating.

Working with a psychologist can equip you with strategies and tools to understand your emotions and find new coping strategies.

Get support

If you are struggling with obsessive thoughts about food, working with a dietitian can help you develop a healthy relationship with food. Freeing up your brain space will allow you to focus on the things that make you happy and give you purpose.

If you want a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to nutrition and health find out more about online nutrition consultations with accredited practicing dietitian and credentialed eating disorder clinician Kim Lindsay.

Get more nutrition advice here

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