Do you find yourself constantly thinking about food? Do you long for more after finishing a meal or snack? Do you find yourself thinking about food hours prior to your next meal? If so, you may be experiencing food obsession.
Food Obsession Definition
Food obsession may be referred to as an intense preoccupation or fixation with food. It often leads to compulsive thoughts and behaviours relating to all things food including meal planning, meal prepping and eating.
Food Obsession Signs
Still unsure if you’re obsessed with food? Here are some common signs of food obsession:
You’re constantly thinking about food (it may even show up in your dreams)
You have difficulty concentrating on other tasks
You spend an excessive amount of time planning meals and snacks
You feel guilty or ashamed if you eat certain foods
You constantly check nutrition labels and count calories
You try to keep certain foods out of your house because you can’t be trusted with them
You avoid social outings that involve food
You uncontrollably eat off-limits foods when you finally get your hands on them
Unfortunately, it has become more of the norm to experience signs of food obsession. And who do we have to thank for this unhealthy obsession with food? Diet culture.
Why am I obsessed with food?
The main culprit behind your obsession with food is diet culture, a culture that prioritizes appearance over health, preaches disordered eating behaviours, and consistently praises weight loss and the thin ideal.
As a result of diet culture, we start to engage in these disordered behaviours (whether consciously or not) in order to meet these unrealistic standards. Restriction is the likely most common behaviour that results in obsession with food. There are 2 main types of restriction: physical & mental.
Depriving yourself of calories, or your favourite foods, can actually make you feel like you’re obsessed with food. The more you restrict a food, the greater your cravings become. The greater the cravings, the more difficult it is to resist the foods.
At some point, you will “give in” to these cravings and by then food tastes that much better. There is actually an increased reward response to the food that takes place in your brain, leading you to feel obsessed with food and continuously eat.
Food obsession as a result of food restriction was documented as early as 1944 in “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment”, a study led by Ancel Keys with the purpose to better understand the effects of semi-starvation, similar to the starvation experienced during world war II.
During the starvation phase of the study, participants' caloric intake was decreased to ~1600 calories/day (similar to many fad diets in this modern day) for 6 months. The psychological outcomes were outstanding.
The participants became obsessed with food. They were dreaming about food, talking about food, reading about food and collecting recipes.
Extreme overeating was also demonstrated in the unrestricted rehabilitation period in which there were no limits to caloric intake (similarly to what we see with modern day “cheat days” or the days following a diet that has ended).
I would also like to point out the fact that this all took place in 1944, much before food obsession was a notable concern.
This is something that you may not even realize you are doing. If you’re already physically restricting food, then you’re also mentally restricting. However, you could be physically allowing certain foods, while still mentally restricting. I’ll give you an example.
Let’s say you are eating a cookie. The fact that you’re eating it means that you have given yourself the physical permission. But, let's consider your thoughts in the moment.
Do you feel bad for eating the cookie? Are you telling yourself you shouldn’t be eating it? Do you feel regret following the eating experience? Do you start to think of compensatory behaviours you can engage in as a means to balance out the effects?
If any of these thoughts feel familiar you can guarantee there is some mental restriction going on.
Our brains are wired to want what we can't have. For instance, there was a study conducted on children in which they were given both yellow and red m&m’s but told not to eat the red ones. Not surprisingly, the consumption of red m&m’s was higher.
As you can see, this mental restriction has similar effects to the physical restriction leading you to feel out of control or obsessed with food.
Can you be addicted to food?
Oftentimes individuals will chalk up their food obsession to a food addiction and in turn they believe the only way to avoid overeating or addictive-like behaviours is to avoid these foods.
Based on what we already discussed, we know that these restrictive behaviours are what drive food obsession, making you feel addicted to food.
Food addiction does remain a controversial topic as there are many flaws in the research demonstrated today including the fact that many studies aren’t taking into account that the restrictive behaviours are in fact what drives the “food addiction.”
For example, looking at food addiction studies done on rats (as these are the most common) we can see that the rats that are food restricted will continuously eat sugar as they’re provided. However, the rats that have regular access to food will not.
From this you can draw the conclusion that addictive-like behaviours are occurring in the presence of limited access or restriction to such foods.
In addition to this, there are multiple studies that reveal a decrease in binge eating when restricted foods are provided as part of the treatment process for binge eating. If in fact the reason for binge eating was food addiction, you would expect the opposite result to occur.
Food Obsession Consequences
If you struggle with food obsession you have probably already realized some of the negative impacts it has on your life. Some consequences of food obsession may include:
Nutritional inadequacies: Obsessive dietary restriction or binge eating can lead to imbalances in macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)
Fueling of the binge-restrict cycle: If you’re constantly thinking about food, the chances are that you’re engaging in some sort of restriction, which we know will eventually lead to a rebound binge. If you struggle with rebound binges I highly recommend you check out my free guide: “4 Steps to Overcome Overeating”
Weight fluctuations: the weight fluctuations go hand in hand with the binge-restrict cycle. These repeated large fluctuations in weight, known as weight cycling, have their own long list of undesirable effects on our health.
Social isolation and decreased quality of life: Food obsession can take up A LOT of your mental and emotional energy which can cause other important aspects of your life to suffer such as work, extracurricular activities and your relationships
Eating disorder: Food obsession itself drives disordered eating behaviours. On the extreme end of this is the development of eating disorders, including but not limited to, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and orthorexia (an extreme obsession with healthy eating that is not officially recognized as a clinical eating disorder by DSM-5).
How to stop obsessing over food
1. Remove the food rules and stop the restriction
If you want to stop obsessing over food, you will need to start giving yourself unconditional permission to eat the foods you desire. I understand that this sounds extremely scary, and that’s because it is.
You think that if you let yourself eat whatever you want whenever you want you will never stop. This may be true initially, or if you don’t implement the correct steps and strategies before doing so.
But trust me, you have the ability to get to a place where you don’t require food rules and restrictions to guide your food choices. This is the place you need to be in order to stop the food obsession. If you need guidance in this area, reach out to me today!
2. Shift the focus to how you want your body to feel
Instead of fixating on specific foods, diet plans and calories focus on how you want your body to feel. We know which behaviours make us feel good. This may include exercise, adequate sleep, stress management and eating a nutritious and balanced diet.
Eating “healthy” and balanced does not mean avoiding all of the fun foods. This could look like eating wrap at lunch filled with veggies and chicken then having a cookie for dessert because it feels good to our bodies and satisfies all of our needs.
If you are restricting and finding yourself obsessing over food you likely wouldn't be able to stop at just 1 or 2 cookies and instead you may eat a whole box. Whereas if you start focusing on how you want your body to feel, you would never eat that much.
3. Get started with intuitive eating
There are many disadvantages to dieting including the fact that diets are restrictive, unsustainable, harmful and often lead to obsession with food.
Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a non-diet approach to eating in which you eat in response to your body's cues rather than restrictive food rules.
When you eat intuitively, foods become more neutral and you no longer feel out of control around the foods you were once obsessed with.
If you’re interested in learning more about becoming an intuitive eater, check my free mini training "Getting Started with Intuitive Eating" today!
4. Seek out support
Last but not least, I will always recommend getting support. Food obsession can be quite exhausting and consuming. If you’re unable to overcome food obsession on your own, I highly recommend looking into getting professional help.
You may want to consider working with a Registered Dietitian or a therapist, preferably one that practices with an intuitive eating approach!
Food Obsession Summed Up
Food obsession is real, it’s difficult to overcome and unfortunately it has many detrimental effects on our lives.
Now that you know that the main culprit is diet culture and the restriction it imposes on our lives, you can start to overcome food obsession.
If you want to stop the food obsession for good, start by taking action this very minute! Again, if you need further guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out! I would love to stay in touch :) Find me on instagram here: @dietitian.krista