Often, people are stuck in the diet mentality without even realizing it. For example, many people tell me that they don’t diet, and then ask, “why am I obsessed with food?”
Food obsession shows up in many different ways.
Food obsession looks different for different people, but these are some common ways it tends to show up:
- Always thinking about food, even when you’ve just eaten
- Stressing about holiday meals for days or weeks beforehand because you’re worried you’ll eat “too much”
- Not enjoying or wanting to take vacations, because you won’t have much control over your food intake
- Constantly wondering when your next meal will be, or putting lots of effort into only eating at certain times (AKA, “I’m hungry now, but I can’t eat again until lunchtime”)
- Intentionally “saving calories” for big meals (eating less during meals beforehand to “make up for” what you’ll eat)
- Not being able to concentrate on work, fun, or anything else, because you’re either daydreaming about food, or feeling guilty for eating it
- Planning exercise around food (forcing yourself to exercise before or after a big meal, letting yourself rest only on days when you restrict your food intake)
Ultimately, being obsessed with foods means that you’re always thinking about food, and you’re shifting everything else in your life based on what and when you’ll eat.
(If you need a little extra help breaking these patterns, go here to request a nutrition counseling appointment. We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at no cost!)
If you’re obsessed with food, it’s probably because you’re restricting.
Think of the last time you went on a super strict diet. (If you’ve never been on one, more power to you!) Say you tried a low-carb diet that forced you to avoid bread, pasta, and other starchy food. Maybe you were able to go without these foods easily for a few days (even weeks).
But then, you found yourself with intense cravings for them. Like, constant longing for these off-limits foods. You probably ate lots of low-carb foods but never felt satisfied. Maybe you even ate these low-carb foods past the point of fullness, hoping for a sense of satisfaction that never came.
That’s an extreme example of how restriction leads to food obsession.
Sometimes, restriction isn’t quite so obvious.
Maybe you’re not *technically* on a diet right now, but you still hold on to certain restrictive beliefs. For example, maybe you don’t avoid pasta anymore, but you still feel a little bit guilty every time you eat it, because that low-carb diet mindset still lingers in your brain. So, you try to avoid pasta — you might think of it as “being good.” When you do allow yourself to have them, you portion out a really small serving. You eat it, but don’t feel satisfied. You go back for another tiny serving. And then another. And another. You feel obsessed with this food, because you literally can’t stop eating it.
Again, though, this is your diet mentality restrictive mindset at play. Sure, you’re allowed to eat pasta when you want it. But you don’t. Most often, you tell yourself that you can’t have it, and you eat something less satisfying instead. Because you didn’t satisfy your pasta craving when it came up, it’s still lingering in your head. And then when you do finally let yourself eat pasta, it’s like opening long-locked floodgates. You cannot stop eating. You feel out of control around food. And ultimately, you binge.
Explicit physical restriction and covert psychological restriction are different, but equally harmful.
Part of why it’s so hard to realize that restriction causes food obsession is that restriction can be hard to spot. Think of the two examples I gave above. In the first example (the low-carb diet), pasta was literally off-limits. You told yourself that you were absolutely not allowed to eat pasta. Your body went without it for X amount of time. That’s explicit physical restriction. When you do this, you know you’re doing it, because it’s a concrete rule.
The second example is one of covert psychological restriction. You technically were allowed to eat pasta. You may not have even realized that you were restricting it, because you had no rule saying that you weren’t allowed to eat it. BUT, you were still restricting it, because you regularly denied your pasta cravings when they came up. Because you thought of pasta as a “bad” food, you tried to eat as little as possible, and had feelings of guilt when you indulged. That’s covert psychological restriction.
Believe it or not, both forms of restriction lead to the same end: Food obsession and (often) bingeing. Whether or not you’re completely avoiding a certain food, or you’re just trying to eat less of it than you want, you’re restricting.
The binge-restrict cycle often goes hand in hand with feeling obsessed with food.
Bingeing is the act of eating much more food than you normally would in one sitting, and feeling completely out of control/unable to stop, and feeling guilt and shame afterwards. (Note that if you simply eat more than usual but don’t have these negative feelings, it’s not a binge!)
Most of the time, food obsession leads to bingeing. Some people binge occasionally, others binge all the time. The binges themselves look different between people, too. But some kind of binge is practically inevitable.
Here’s why: Food obsession is part of the binge-restrict cycle. Ultimately, the cycle has 4 phases:
- Shame: You feel ashamed of your body, your weight, your food intake, or perhaps something else. You tell yourself that changing your body/weight/food intake will alleviate this shame.
- Restriction: You start a diet (or covert psychological restriction). At first, you feel super in control. Your shame starts to fade. You feel empowered, even!
- Intense cravings: This is where the food obsession kicks in. You suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, feel obsessed with food. You can’t stop thinking about it Maybe it’s one food, maybe it’s just food in general. Either way, you feel obsessed. You identify with many of the things listed at the top of this article.
- Bingeing: Ultimately, you give into this feeling of obsession with a binge. It might start with just allowing yourself a tiny portion of the food you crave, but it always spirals out of your control.
And then, you’re right back at the beginning of the cycle, feeling shame and looking for a new way to restrict.
The only way out of food obsession is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.
It might sound counterintuitive, especially if you buy into diet culture’s message that willpower is the only way to stop binge eating. But diet culture is a liar, and the only way to truly stop bingeing is to stop restricting.
Giving yourself unconditional permission to one of the intuitive eating principles, and it’s so important. It means allowing yourself to eat what you want, when you want. It also means letting go of the idea that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods. (That part takes time, and lots of challenging your inner food police.)
At first, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat will probably make you feel more out of control. Why? Because you’re still eating in response to all the restricting you’ve done in the past. You’ll probably gravitate mostly towards previously “forbidden” foods. And that’s OK!
After a while — and, this timeline really depends on the person! — your feelings of food obsession you crave. That’s called habituation: the process in which you do something often enough that it starts to feel old-hat. You no longer feel intense cravings for certain foods, because you’re allowed to eat them.
Habituation takes time, but you won’t always feel so obsessed with food.
The hardest part of escaping food obsession and healing your relationship with food is that it takes time. Like I mentioned, giving yourself permission to eat often means that you’ll feel out of control around food for a while. While that’s happening, it’s so tempting to give up. To tell yourself that the process isn’t working, and go back to dieting and trying to lose weight.
Don’t give up. After a while, you will notice those obsessive thoughts start to fade. You will start to make peace with food — particularly with all of those foods that used to make you feel out of control. It’s not a linear process, and you’ll likely need some support on the way. But when you stop trying to eat less, stop trying to control your cravings? You’ll start on the path to recovery from food obsession, disordered eating, and chronic dieting.
You might also like:
What Is Orthorexia — and Do I Have It?
The Binge Restrict Cycle: How Dieting Causes Binge Eating
What Is Set Point Weight? Does It Matter?
What Is Gentle Nutrition In Intuitive Eating?
If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.
Hello: I am struggling with food obsessions–I see your solution–stop restricting and allow oneself to eat as much of the target food as one’s likes. Then, you say, the obsession will disappear through habituation. Ok. Sounds good except, during this phase one will gain a lot of weight which will be very depressing and dangerous as it would lead to higher blood pressure, for example.
Thanks for any thoughts.