Food takes up space in all of our minds. After all, we need it to survive. But what’s “normal” when it comes to thinking about food? How much is too much?
Do you feel like thinking about food might be taking up too much space in your life or preventing you from thinking about other things? If so, you might be experiencing food preoccupation.
What is food preoccupation?
Preoccupation is having persistent thoughts or an obsessive fixation on something to the point where it compromises daily living.
For those that have an unhealthy relationship with food or negative body image, preoccupation with food is common. It can affect one’s ability to work and socialize, and may even lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
What causes food preoccupation?
Believe it or not, restriction is the biggest trigger of preoccupation.
Most diets promote restriction. Whether it’s restricting calories, cutting out carbs, eliminating gluten, or not eating within a certain time window, an element of scarcity is imposed, often leading to preoccupation.
This phenomenon was demonstrated in 1944’s infamous Minnesota Starvation Study. The researcher, Ancel Keys, wanted to see what would happen to humans after a 6 month period of semi-starvation. The experience resulted in personality changes, with participants showing greater apathy, depression, and irritability. They had trouble with concentration and comprehension, and many lost interest in life.
Perhaps what was most surprising, however, was the food preoccupation that resulted. Participants spent a lot more time talking about, obsessing over, and craving food, as well as collecting recipes and planning what they would eat in the future. Many also became possessive over the food they received.
Although this may feel like an extreme example, an innocent weight loss endeavour can prompt a scarcity mindset that triggers food preoccupation much like in this study.
Our bodies are hardwired to survive. When we don’t give ourselves enough food, our bodies fear that starvation is impending. It will do everything in its power to push us to eat.
How can I know if I’m preoccupied with food?
Food preoccupation generally involves incessant thoughts about food and eating. You may find yourself spending a lot of time planning meals, looking up recipes, reading menus, looking at Instagram pictures, or watching cooking shows. You might frequently bring food up in conversations or collect food that you have no intention of eating. You might even analyze what other people around you are eating.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do I spend a lot of time thinking about food?
- Do I have a hard time focusing on other activities because I’m thinking about food?
- Do I try to surround myself with food even when I have no intention of eating it?
- Do I get agitated when my plan for the next meal or snack gets disrupted?
- Do I avoid social situations because I won’t have control over food?
How can I shift my food preoccupation?
One of the greatest benefits of consistent and varied eating is that you can spend less time planning and thinking about food. Eating enough and achieving both physical fullness and satisfaction will give you the space to invest in activities that enhance your self-esteem and help you enjoy life.
When you are initially establishing a regular eating pattern, it is understandable that staying on track will take extra (and different) time and attention. But as you start feeling more settled in your regular eating, you will be able to focus more on those other activities.
Here are some of our top strategies for minimizing food preoccupation:
1. Let go of eating rigidity
Rigidity around food might come from feeling a lack of control in other areas of your life. Controlling food can become a coping mechanism.
Remind yourself that eating regularly is the most important goal; that means that sometimes you might just have to throw a meal together quickly with whatever is left in the fridge or order in delivery when you’re too busy to cook.
You may worry that not being food-preoccupied and not planning everything out “perfectly” will result in an “unhealthy” diet; you may feel that if you are going to allow yourself to eat, it has to check off all the boxes including flavour, presentation, nutrition, and so on. This is a common misconception and it may have been adopted as a way to feel safe and controlled. Consider challenging this behaviour to promote flexibility. Feeling the need to craft “perfect” meals may actually be maintaining food preoccupation and preventing you from getting in touch with your body’s internal cues, which can ultimately guide your food choices.
Give yourself food freedom by moving away from the food rules you’ve established for yourself.
For instance, instead of measuring out precisely calculated portions of food, consider other ways of determining your portions, such as following a plate model, using others as a guide, or tuning into hunger and fullness signals if accessible. If someone invites you out for lunch last minute, give yourself permission to go. Instead of “saving your dessert” for the weekend, enjoy the cookies your co-worker generously brought for the office.
You might worry that giving yourself permission to eat these foods will result in uncontrollable overeating or a binge. This fear is normal, but with practice you can develop the confidence to be flexible while feeling safe.
2. Aim to eat enough at meals and snacks
Ensuring that you are full and satisfied after meals and snacks will help you become less food preoccupied in between them. Think about all the things you could do with this time. This may take attention initially as you structure your eating and ensure that your needs are met, but as you settle in and remind yourself that you will be eating again in a few hours, you will develop the ability to focus on other non-food related activities.
3. Prioritize variety
Whether it’s bread, dairy, sugar, or chips, there are likely foods that have been strictly off limits for you. Your list of forbidden foods may have started off with only one or two items and then quickly grew, leaving only a small range of safe foods. This progression of food elimination and restriction inevitably compromised the diversity of your diet and led to food preoccupation.
There are many benefits to reintroducing variety. It enables you to discover your food preferences, which will help you find pleasure and satisfaction in eating. This in turn will lead to decreased food preoccupation. It also increases the likelihood of you getting in all the nutrients you need.
4. Take time to address the challenges in your life
When you find yourself becoming food preoccupied, consider asking yourself whether you are avoiding other problems.
Life is full of challenges. Sometimes these problems can seem like they are too hard to solve or you may not know where to start. Thinking about these issues can create unhelpful emotions like fear and anxiety. Of course, no one wants to feel this way. For those who struggle with their eating, these thoughts are often displaced onto food or body image because those feel like problems that are more “solvable” and can thus result in food preoccupation. Addressing some of the problems, rather than avoiding or displacing them, will help you feel like you have agency in your life. Starting with small steps to address challenges will help you feel effective and increase your confidence that you can also manage larger problems.
5. Find other interests
While you transition to a more regular eating routine, explore other interests that bring enjoyment and are important to you so you have less time to focus on food. You may think, but I don’t have other interests! Think back to how you filled your time years ago. Ask a friend for suggestions. Be willing to take a chance and experiment. You could start by getting reacquainted with a former hobby, such as reading a book, going to the park, reconnecting with old friends, or starting a craft. You may be surprised and find yourself engaged in a new activity.
Let go of interests that no longer serve you. Do an inventory of the social media accounts you’re following; are they predominately food- or weight-focused? Are you watching a lot of food, cooking, or baking shows? You may wonder if it’s okay to keep watching them. Reflect on why you enjoy those shows.
Do these activities contribute to your food preoccupation? Try to go without and experiment with shows and social media accounts that are not food-related. See what comes up for you and reflect on what you are actually missing.
6. Set a goal
Moving away from food preoccupation will take time. Go slow and consider creating some tangible goals. For example, ask yourself how much time food takes up in your life. What percentage of the day do you find yourself thinking about food? Then, establish a lower target for yourself to stay under. Keep checking in with yourself over time and you can incrementally lower the target further as you feel ready. This strategy may not be appropriate for everyone, but can be useful for those that are motivated by quantifiable goals.
7. Gradually reduce food monitoring
Food monitoring is a common strategy for those working towards healing their relationship with food (check out our previous blog on Self-Monitoring here). It’s an effective tool but not meant to be a permanent fixture in one’s life. If you have been monitoring your food as a means to normalize eating and have been on track for some time, it may be time to decrease the amount of food monitoring you are doing. This is a wonderful sign of progress and may be the next step to moving away from food preoccupation.