Is food obsession taking up all of your brain space?
Do you spend way too much time counting calories or macros, tracking your intake, or reading food labels so you can lose weight or be healthy?
Are you constantly thinking about what effect eating certain foods will have on your body or health?
That’s totally understandable. There is so much information and clickbait out there, it’s hard not to worry about everything you eat!
If you’re ready to explore breaking free from food obsession, this article will help explain what food obsession is, what causes it, and help you take steps toward food freedom.
What is food obsession?
Food obsession is a preoccupation with the nutrition content and health effects of foods. This often leads to restrictive eating which gets explained away as “clean eating” or another “lifestyle” choice, even though it may include obsessive or harmful behaviors.
Behaviors that might indicate food obsession include:
- Reading the nutrition label of every item purchased
- Calorie or macro counting (carbohydrates, fats, or protein tracking)
- Using apps to meticulously track every bite of food you eat
- Reading recipe books and food blogs regularly
- Feeling anxious not knowing the nutrition content of foods (at restaurants or at a potluck, for example)
- Watching food shows or cooking videos frequently
- Labeling foods as “real” vs “not real” or “good” vs “bad”
- Excluding whole classes of foods for fear of their health effects (i.e. excluding all meat or carbs or all foods with added sugars)
What causes food obsession?
Food obsession is most commonly caused by dieting, food rules, diet culture messaging from family or the media, social media use, and perfectionism.
Dieting: Reducing calories or macros has been shown to cause obsessive thinking about food, recipes, and eating in healthy adults. This is your brain’s biological response to perceived starvation or famine. Since we are biologically wired for survival, your brain signals you to think about food to trigger eating.
Food rules: Having food rules such as “I don’t eat added sugars” or “I eat only whole foods” has lead many of my clients to food obsession. These rules about food are a form of mental restriction often influenced by diet culture.
Diet culture: Public health messaging that demonizes certain foods. Family influences like “eat your veggies before you can have dessert.” The media labeling foods as “superfoods.” These are all examples of diet culture in action. Internalizing these messages can influence someone’s obsessive thoughts about food.
Social media: Many diet culture messages are seen on social media sites like Instagram and TikTok, many of which have no basis in truth or scientific evidence. Studies show that increased social media use can increase obsession with food.
Perfectionism: Personality traits such as perfectionism may also play a role in developing an obsession with food. (There is no “perfect” diet!)
How to stop food obsession
Step 1: Recognize that food is not the enemy
You may have been told that you need to “eat clean” or avoid certain foods in order to be healthy. But restrictive eating and the diet mentality can lead you away from health and happiness and increase your risk for disordered eating.
When you view certain foods as “bad,” you set yourself up for feeling guilty and shameful for eating them. Some might even worry about developing a disease.
Diet culture fuels this black and white thinking about eating. It labels food as either “good” or “bad,” as “superfood” or “junk.” But nothing is that simple or binary. Eating is only one small component of health.
What should you do to shift away from this binary thinking about food?
Instead of seeing food as a cure for or cause of disease, try to see it as nourishment for your body and mind. Focusing on flavors, textures, taste and the satisfaction foods bring can help expand your thinking.
Enjoy food for how it deepens your connection with family and friends. After all, what would a wedding or festival be without delicious food?
In this greater context, I invite you to be flexible about your eating. All foods can fit in a balanced eating pattern. And every food decision doesn’t have to be a battle between good and evil.
Step 2: Allow yourself to eat foods you enjoy
Allow yourself to eat foods that taste good to you and that satisfy you. Satisfaction is at the core of Intuitive Eating.
Rigid food rules, no matter where they came from, can get in the way of having a positive relationship with food. And they can rob you of the pleasure of eating.
Besides, if you have been avoiding certain foods, chances are you may find yourself craving them obsessively. Or binge eating. When you stop eating foods you love, the brain makes you crave them even more. You might even feel like you have a food addiction.
The path forward may seem counterintuitive. The solution is to eat the foods you crave more often.
When I say this to clients, they often think, “If I do that, I’ll never eat anything but my binge foods!” But what actually happens is something like this:
They eat some of what they’re craving, then eat other foods they enjoy, too. Then they eat their craving foods again, then other foods. By the time a few weeks pass, they forget they even have the “forbidden” food in the pantry.
Giving yourself permission to eat all foods does not make you abandon balanced eating or eat just cakes and chips all the time. Allowing yourself to include foods you crave along with balanced eating simply lets your brain habituate to those foods.
As you habituate to them, you end up craving them LESS over time. Enjoying your favorite foods regularly will help you break free from the cycle of restriction and bingeing.
Step 3: Make peace with your body
Imagine this scenario:
You’re out to dinner with friends and you’re having a great time, but all of a sudden you start to feel antsy looking at the menu.
Your mind starts racing and you can’t help but think about what you’re going to eat and how many calories it’s going to have. And whether you’ll gain weight if you eat it.
You try to push these thoughts out of your head, but they keep creeping back in. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Many of us have been there before, and it’s not a fun place to be.
When you focus your attention on your weight and how what you’re eating will affect how your body looks, it’s easy to become consumed by thoughts of food.
One of the best ways to break free from food obsession is to explore what you value about yourself outside of your looks. This helps you make peace with your body.
Try this exercise:
Write down five things you love about your best friend. Is it the way they listen? Their sense of adventure? Is it their sense of humor?
Now, write five things you think your best friend would say they love about you. If you’re stuck on this one, ask your best friend!
Exercises like this one help you find your worth outside of your appearance and take the focus off of your body. Your weight is NOT your worth!
When you make peace with your body, you’ll find that your relationship with food will change drastically.
You’ll no longer view food as a way to control your weight or appearance but instead as something that energizes you to do the activities you love.
Step 4. Focus on something other than food and weight
If you didn’t have to spend so much time obsessing about food and your weight, how would you spend your time?
Would you travel? Volunteer? Take up a new hobby? Spend more time with friends or your children? Revive your love of a sport you used to play?
Honestly, focusing on weight loss or counting calories obsessively with your free time may be holding you back from pursuing an engaging, satisfying, full life. How else could you be spending your time?
In case you need it, consider this is your official invitation to drop macro counting, food tracking, step counting or label reading in favor of finding more joyful ways to spend your time. Consider deleting food tracking apps and taking a social media break.
When you have other things in your life that are fulfilling and make you happy, you rely less on changing your body to find value or satisfaction.
Step 5: Find professional support for food obsession
If you find that your obsessive thoughts about food are impacting your quality of life or causing you distress, it might be helpful to seek professional help from someone who specializes in disordered eating.
A Registered Dietitian can help you understand your thoughts and feelings around food and help guide you towards a better relationship with food and your body. I offer individual nutrition coaching to get started on the path to food freedom.
A therapist or counselor can help you process your thoughts and emotions around food and body. They can also help you build coping skills for stress and anxiety. Professional support can also help you evaluate whether your food obsession may be an eating disorder.
You deserve positive mental health and freedom from food obsession. Eating disorders are no one’s fault and recovery is possible. There is no shame in asking for help.
If you’re ready to stop food obsession, remember these five steps: recognize that food is not the enemy; allow yourself to eat what you want; make peace with your body; find other things to focus on in your life and seek professional support.
By making these changes, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier and happier relationship with food – and with yourself!
Hello there! I’m Britt, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. I can help you find freedom from life-long dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders. When I’m not writing about ditching diet culture, joyful movement or improving body image, you can find me hiking in Vermont’s Green Mountains, eating pizza, making modern quilts or sipping a hot cup of tea. Let’s connect!