If you regularly find yourself thinking about food, then you’re not alone.
But what about when our natural desire for food runs out of control and becomes a problem?
We asked a selected group of experts to give us their best advice when it comes to stopping (or at least reducing) how often you think about food.
Here’s what they said.
Editor's note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.
It’s Difficult Not To Think About Food
Melissa McAllister, Fitness and Nutrition Coach
Let’s face it – it’s hard not to think about food!
Between the billboards, the smells from the food court, and fond memories particular foods bring us, it’s difficult to dismiss a craving once it hits.
And it’s not just a matter of willpower either, certain foods activate our rewards system, so our brain tells us (repeatedly) we need that food to feel happy.
Here are three tips I use with my clients to help them overcome that sometimes strong signal from the brain telling us to eat that cookie.
1) Leave the area. If you are in the kitchen and just can’t get the leftover dessert off your mind, go outside and take a short five-minute walk.
This will give you time to think about whether you really want that dessert or really want to stick to your healthy meal plan.
2) Journal! In the moment, we forget how bad processed foods make us feel both physically and mentally after we’ve eaten them.
By journaling how you feel before, during, and after a cheat, you can then go back and reread your journal to be reminded that it most likely won’t be worth it the next temptation arises.
3) Make yourself a drink. Now I’m not talking about an alcoholic one, but maybe some unsweetened tea, black coffee, cucumber water, or flavored sparkling water can do the trick.
As you may have heard, thirst can undoubtedly be mistaken for hunger.
Choose Nutrient Dense Options
Shena Jaramillo, Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist
The key contributor to constantly thinking about food is food restriction.
For people who engage in fad diets, elimination of certain food groups, macronutrients or types of foods will often create obsessions surrounding food.
Individuals that go for long durations between meals and snacks can also hyper-focus on food.
The best trick to not think about food constantly is to continually snack on nutrient dense foods (think fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats) throughout the day.
This tells the body that food is consistently available while meeting nutrient demands.
Snacking on nutrient dense foods frequently that are filled with fiber will help create satiety and keep you full for longer.
Are You Using Food To Deal With Your Emotions?
Paula Sturm, Registered Dietician and Owner of Radically Nourished
Oftentimes we seek out food to experience an emotion or to cover up an emotion.
When a food thought is all consuming, I recommend sitting down in a quiet place and asking yourself, what am I looking to experience right now? Am I looking for happiness? Love? Joy? Stress relief? A distraction? Do I need to have a conversation with someone I’m putting off? Am I not speaking my truth in some area of my life?
Then ask, will this food help me experience that or will it just make me feel better temporarily? What can I do instead that will get to the root of the problem or help me experience true joy right now?
Maybe a walk outside, hot bath with a book and a moment of peace and quiet, or call a friend to connect.
Or, find a healthy way to express the frustration that’s coming up or schedule a time to have the conversation you’re putting off. See how food becomes less dominant when we are in touch with our emotions and express them authentically.
When we put harsh restrictions and control on our diet it can backfire, leading us to obsess about the food items we have shunned or thought of as bad.
There is a saying, what we resist, persists. Foods we are resisting for one reason or another will create a way of overpowering your thoughts instead.
I suggest reframing here, instead of harsh restriction and naming foods bad, allow yourself to have any food you want.
All foods are fine, you just may choose not to have them right now or you may only choose to have them one time per week.
See how the energy shifts to inclusion instead of exclusion which allows a sense of ease around the situation.
Sometimes, we think about food a lot because we aren’t properly nourishing ourselves with nutrient rich foods.
If our diet is lacking in colorful fruits and veggies and full of highly palatable foods such as fast foods, pastries, sugar, fat, and salt our body is left looking for nutrition.
Your body will be seeking out more vitamins and minerals but its signals can’t quite communicate that it needs broccoli and will instead give a signal that it just needs more food in hopes it will get what it needs.
If we can eat a balanced diet full of colorful veggies and fruit along with some complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats, our body feels more satisfied and food thoughts tend to diminish.
There’s No Magical Way To End Obsessing About Food
Karen R. Koenig, Psychology of Eating Psychotherapist, Author and Blogger
People struggle with a food obsession for several reasons.
First, they manage their emotions through food seeking and an over-focus on weight and appearance. Foods calm and numb them and also trigger dopamine to lift their spirits.
Second, with a food obsession they don’t have to face other life problems, as thoughts of eating and controlling their food intake (and what they weigh) overpower any other issues they may face. This is called ‘secondary gain’, that is, the benefit they get out of having the problem.
Third, they lack life skills to manage anxiety and depression. Most of my clients with eating disorders have underlying neurotransmitter deficiencies.
Fourth, another example of secondary gain, some people use their eating problem to keep them dependent. Maybe they’re not ready to leave the nest or a marriage and staying obsessed with food helps them avoid challenges. Equally, having a problem prevents others from leaving them.
The fifth reason is that thinking about food is an old habit, one they probably learned in childhood or adolescence when it was adaptive, but now that they’re adults it is maladaptive. It has become an unhealthy habit and must be treated as such.
Sixth, when people diet and don’t nourish their bodies with enough calories, their body will try to survive by increasing thoughts about eating in order to not starve.
Most dysregulated eaters begin food obsession by (and continue with) weight-loss dieting. When they nourish themselves adequately, food obsession stops or lessens.
There is no magical way to end obsessing about food, but recovery starts with stopping dieting and increasing healthy self-talk.
To break the habit, you simply can’t do it. Every time a thought about non-hunger eating comes to mind, a person must shut it out and call it for what it is: junk thinking.
Also, people need to explore how their eating disorder serves them by asking themselves these questions: Does everyone in their family talk about their problems and that passes for intimacy? Is this how they get people to worry about them? What would they be thinking about if they weren’t obsessing about food? How does the obsession keep them stuck or give them the perception of safety?
To improve their relationship with food, people must: create healthy beliefs; develop effective life skills; practice healthy personality traits (no all-nothing thinking, perfectionism, self-judgment, etc.); learn emotional management and self-regulation; establish healthy beliefs about eating, appearance and life; and resolve underlying conflicts such as mixed feelings about losing weight, etc.
Thinking About Food Is Often Fuelled By Powerful Biological Drives
Katherine Kimber, Registered Dietician
One key reason why someone might struggle with not being able to stop thinking about food all of the time is due to biological hunger.
As a Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor, this is a difficulty that many of my clients face before working with me.
When someone is thinking about food all of the time, the first question that comes to my mind is, ‘are they eating enough?’. Because the body has powerful biological and psychological drivers to make us eat when our bodies need fuel, carbohydrates or just satisfaction.
The drive to eat is fuelled by a connection between the mind and the body. Nerve cells of appetite are located in the hypothalamus of the brain where a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters are triggered to make us eat.
What many belief is an issue of “willpower”, is instead a powerful biological drive.
One key hunger hormone (a chemical substance that acts as a messenger) that drives hunger is Ghrelin goes up in response to food deprivation.
Ghrelin receptors are located in the brain (a small part called the hypothalamus). When the body requires energy, Ghrelin gets produced to make us feel hungry, and therefore eat. It typically switches off when we eat enough food.
We also have a powerful neurotransmitter (another type of chemical messenger in the body) involved in making us seek out carbs! Yes, a transmitter to make us eat carbs! It’s called Neuropeptide Y (NPY). The reason is that carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the body.
NPY is typically elevated after an imposed period of food deprivation, including an overnight fast from dinner to breakfast.
Have you ever noticed that the longer you go without eating, or if you cut carbs, the stronger the craving is for carbohydrate-rich foods?
At some point, we cave in. If that’s you, it’s probably a sign that your body is simply working! The more we deny our true hunger and fight our natural biology, the stronger and more intense food cravings and food obsessions become.
This is why dieting and fasting can backfire for many. Fasting and restricting typically revs up both Grehlin and NPY, to make us seek more food, including carbohydrates. So, by the next time we access food, it can easily become a high-carb binge!
In short, thinking about food can be a sign we’re not eating enough. The body makes us think about and seek out food as a survival mechanism, and many complex processes are involved.
My advice for people who are struggling with always thinking about food is to firstly, add in a snack or two throughout the day. Ensure the body is biologically fed – it usually feels good to eat every three to four hours which might look like three meals (with carbohydrate sources), and two to three snacks per day.
If you’re still struggling with thinking about food a lot, check-in with how satisfying your meals and snacks are. Because most people find themselves uncontrollably diving into the foods they are actively trying to avoid, which is usually a sign of deprivation and restriction.
It might be that a little more “fun food” needs to be added into the day – low-calorie cereal bars, rice cakes, and kale crisps just might not be hitting the spot!
Add More Healthy Foods To Your Diet And Watch What Happens
Joey Thurman, Fitness Expert and Celebrity Trainer
Our relationship with food is like a first time high school sweetheart. We become infatuated, we need more and more, and we can’t think of anything else.
And then when we try to break up with them, the “break” doesn’t last long. OK, maybe that was just my high school relationship!
The truth is, food is a ‘relationship’ that we have no matter how you want to spin it. Our culture is based around food at every single event.
We must make some shifts in our relationship with food and try to understand why we may have these relationship woes.
Did you know that on a hormonal level, your body gets programmed to eat at certain times? If you normally eat your first meal at 9am, your body is used to eating at that time. When that clock hits 9:15, you become ravenous and so hungry. Here’s the truth: you aren’t hungry, your hormones are just telling you that you are.
So what can we do with this information? Well, if you normally crave sweet foods in the morning, you could perhaps try pushing past your breakfast time until that ‘hunger’ feeling goes away and then choose a much healthier option. This can start to ‘reprogram’ both your pallet and eating schedule.
You could also try an Intermittent Fasting schedule and see if that helps your food choices and health.
Have you tried to think about what you can eat instead of what you can’t? Whenever someone goes on a diet, they tend to end up thinking about the foods they have to avoid.
Try swapping, “I can’t have my chips!” for “Wow, I can have these amazing blueberries!”.
Another tip is to try adding more healthy foods to your diet and just see what happens. Start adding a green smoothie, more broccoli, asparagus, avocado, or more fruit to your day – and don’t even think about ‘dieting’.
Recent research is pointing to less calories overall being eaten when people simply add better choices to their diet.
Another tip is to focus on how you feel afterwards! I tell my clients this all the time.
If that peanut butter cup goes in your belly and an hour afterwards you feel sad and guilty about it, focus on that feeling the next time you’re tempted. If that 15 seconds of pleasure isn’t worth it, don’t put it in your mouth.
In the end, what you put in your shopping cart, in your pantry, and in your mouth is up to you! Stop blaming everyone else and take control of your fork!
It’s Probably Time To Reframe Your Relationship With Food
Maritza Worthington, Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant
After a near-death experience in my twenties, I completely changed my food habits (and even quit alcohol) through the power of nutrition and mindfulness.
If you find yourself caught in a vicious cycle of sugar-coated treats, drive thrus, late-night comfort carbs and afternoon coffee runs, it’s probably time to reframe your relationship with food.
Although this might feel awkward at first, the first step to improving anything in life is acknowledging that you’re currently caught in a rut. The human brain is complex, and when we repeat a certain behavior (whether it’s good or bad), strong neural pathways are formed through repetition.
So every single time you think about a certain junk food, or use it as a crutch to cope with stress and fear—time and time again—it becomes more and more difficult to break the bad habit.
However, the study of neuroplasticity also shows us that just like you can train your brain to adopt unhealthy food habits, you can also use this power for good.
And through repetition and focus on healthier food habits, eventually those old neural pathways (that supported your late night cookie eating) get used less and weaken as a result.
So how can you stop the junk food craze and tap into healthier eating habits?
1) Become more intuitive about food by seeing past the dopamine hit. It can be difficult to tap into our higher self needs when going against our own biological hardware.
For instance, eating a sugar-loaded cookie will most likely result in your brain producing more dopamine as your body absorbs an influx of sugar.
Dopamine will then trigger neurons in the body’s pleasure system, making a person suddenly feel ecstatic and energetic. That is, until the stimulus wears off and the hunt for another hit, or cookie, starts its course all over again.
Dopamine is largely responsible for reinforcing these behaviors in us because our bodies are naturally designed to seek out pleasure.
That’s why it’s important to question why we crave certain foods in the first place (i.e. sugar, dairy, refined carbs), as well as how we might be using food to self-medicate or escape from something we’re feeling.
2) Fill in the Missing Junk food Gap with Nourishing Foods. As you start to remove processed foods from your diet, it’s important to then fill in the existing gap with nutrient-dense foods that not only take the place of your ex-foods, but also assist in cultivating the dopamine response naturally.
This can be done by including both fat-soluble vitamins and B6 food in the diet to support dopamine production naturally.
Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A and D, are dopaminergic and actually help to reduce addictive tendencies and obesity. Excellent sources include extra sunshine, fatty fishes, and, when necessary, supplementation.
Additionally, vitamin B6 is also a key nutrient that is helpful in converting L-dopa to dopamine, as well as assisting other neurotransmitters. Optimal sources include fish, beef liver and organ meats, or supplementation if necessary.
3) Give Yourself a Mindful Moment Before Indulgence. In order to ensure and trust that you are truly making a health-conscious food choice, it’s important to give yourself the gift of a moment before deciding to eat a certain food or meal.
So before quickly selecting a food option, or ordering off a menu, take a few seconds to ask the question: Is this food of the highest good for me? Then wait a few seconds for the answer to come through.
At this point, you are allowing more conscious thought processing to take place, which is activating the more rational, frontal region of your brain, as opposed to the mammalian region that makes decisions based on emotional triggers, quick pleasure, and pain avoidance!
Hint: if you find yourself leaning away from a food when asking the question, it’s an indicator that you probably should make another choice!