Obsessive thoughts about food are extremely common in people with eating disorders. These thoughts occur for a variety of reasons. For some people, the thoughts are a psychological symptom of the eating disorder itself – a preoccupation with the very thing that is both friend and enemy: food.
Food restriction alone can also play a role in these obsessive thoughts. This was shown in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment back in the 1940’s. They took 36 healthy men (without eating disorders) and put them on a calorie-restricted diet. The participants became obsessed with food – it was all they could think about, talk about, read about, write about, and even dream about. It’s thought to be the brain’s way of telling somebody who isn’t eating enough to seek out more food for survival. Not a bad strategy, huh? Turns out our bodies are pretty smart.
Examples of food obsession:
Thinking about food constantly
Watching a lot of food-related TV
Large amounts of time spent looking up recipes, reading food blogs, pinning recipes on Pinterest, etc.
Collecting and reading cookbooks
Spending hours at grocery stores, possibly going to multiple stores
Excessive time and energy spent on cooking and baking
- Extreme disappointment if food didn’t live up to your expectations
Frequently reading articles about “health” and “nutrition”
- Food having to be THE center of attention in your life, or at social events
The role of culture
Part of the trouble with this issue is that it sometimes gets normalized by our food-obsessed culture. There’s clearly a demand for food “content” – whether it be on TV, social media, magazines, blogs, or anywhere else people go for leisure and entertainment. And this isn’t all bad. Food is meant to be enjoyed, and humans have always come together to share meals as a way to bond.
So how do we know when being a “foodie” or thinking about food a lot crosses the line into it being a problem? That’s also hard to say. Google “food obsession” and you’ll come up with a bunch of “treatments” for food “addiction.” (Side note – none of these treatments are proven effective. There’s debate over whether food “addiction” truly exists).
Determining if a person’s food thoughts are clinically relevant is just as much qualitative as it is quantitative. By that, I mean that we have to look at WHY a person is thinking about food so much, and what is the nature of their thoughts.
Total Conscious Time
We can start by looking at the Total Conscious Time (TCT). This is the percentage of one’s thoughts on an average day that are about food. “Normal” TCT is considered to be 15-20% of your day spent thinking about food. This would include noticing when you are hungry, deciding what to eat, preparing food, eating, planning meals, grocery shopping, packing your lunch, and other necessary tasks.
Most people with disordered eating and eating disorders will report an elevated TCT.
However, TCT doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, as a dietitian, I talk and think about food all day long at the office, and then I have to think about it some at home too in order to feed myself and my family. So by TCT measures, mine is probably elevated. But it’s not “disordered” or “pathological” because it is serving me a useful purpose. And when I don’t need to be thinking about food, I’m not.
“What should I do if I’m obsessed with food?”
If this describes you, then consider it a gift that you are becoming aware of the issue. The silver lining in food obsession is that it usually indicates something else going on in your life that needs to be addressed. It’s a warning flag of sorts, and if you heed the call then you will likely be able to ultimately find more peace within yourself than you realized was possible.
The first step would be to get in to see a therapist and/or dietitian who is specialized in eating disorders. These are the people who have been trained in the area of psychology and food obsession, so they will understand the nuances of what you are going through.
If you are already working with a treatment team, and are still struggling with obsessive food thoughts, make sure you tell them this. It will help them understand your inner world, so they can better help you through it.
You might consider tracking your TCT for a few days. Check in with yourself every hour or so and notice how often you’re thinking about food, and in what ways your thinking about food. Also check in with yourself emotionally – what else are you feeling? Ponder what you might otherwise be thinking about if not food in those moments.
You’ll also want the feedback from a dietitian to help you know if you are eating enough. Like I said earlier, sometimes the simple act of undereating – whether intentional or not – can fuel food thoughts.
We live in a culture that is already obsessed with food.
It can be hard to know if our own thoughts are “normal” or not — and by “normal” I mean the healthy kind of normal, not the “normal” as in the norm of our culture.
By containing your food thoughts to the amount that is useful for you, you will have the space to think about and engage in other aspects of life. Food needs to take up some of our thoughts, but not a disproportionate amount. There are a lot of other important things you can spend your time thinking about.