How much time do you spend thinking about food? What percent of your thoughts throughout the day? Seriously, stop and think about this for a moment and try to give an honest answer before you read ahead.
We call this the "total conscious time" or TCT. For some people it also includes thinking about weight, body image and exercise in addition to food (because these things can be all tied together in our minds).
It is no secret that as a society we are pretty obsessed with food. It has its own TV channels. Plus food is constantly available to us in ways it never used to be. So it is easy to see where we might think about food more frequently than we really need to.
So what is a normal percent of your day to think about food? What we typically tell patients is 15-20%. Reality is that you have to think about food sometimes or you'd forget to eat. But outside of thinking about food when you are hungry, need to pack your lunch, grocery shopping, or cooking, you don't really need to be thinking about it much.
Interestingly, in a study done on healthy men, when their food was restricted to about 1500 calories per day they became obsessed with food. They would think about it constantly, pour over recipes, obsess about their next meal, get really possessive of food, and hide or hoard or even steal food. This is what happens when we deprive ourselves. The body's #1 job is to keep you alive, and if the threat of starvation is perceived (whether the threat is real or not) the brain will become preoccupied with food to motivate you to eat.
Consider what happens when you go on a diet or start restricting. Your TCT increases. This is partially what makes dieting unsustainable and ultimately ineffective. It goes completely against our biology. Because for the human body the threat of weight loss (and ultimately starvation) is much more dangerous than weight gain or obesity. [But the medical community won't tell you that.]
When TCT gets to the high end of the spectrum we tend to see a diagnosable eating disorder. It's not uncommon for people with eating disorders to report that they think about food 90-100% of the time. And what is truly amazing is that with these thoughts constantly swirling around in their mind, they often remain quite high-functioning in the rest of their lives.
What should you do if you find yourself thinking about food more than about 15-20% of your day? First of all, if you're dieting STOP. For those of you not on a diet, take an honest look at your eating patterns and ask yourself if you are truly eating enough. If you aren't sure, a dietitian can help you figure this out.
When your TCT falls into normal range it gives you the space to be fully present in other areas of your life.