Is food obsession a daily distraction? Do you think about food all the time? Do you wish you could think about food less? Do you long for food freedom, where making food choices could require a bit less of your mental time and energy? If this sounds relatable, I need you to know: you are not alone, and it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to learn to use food as a tool for self-care and community connection in a way that isn’t obsessive and all-consuming.
I’m Alida, a non-diet dietitian in Ontario, Canada. I work with clients every day who are wanting a more neutral, peaceful relationship with food. In this post I’m exploring what food obsession looks like, why you might be obsessed with food, and how to think about food less. Let’s get started!
What does food obsession look like?
If you’re not sure what I mean by food obsession, let me paint a picture for you. Food obsession can look like:
- Constant thoughts about when and what you’ll be eating next
- Experiencing regret, shame, or over-analyzing food you’ve eaten
- Choosing activities and social engagements based on the food component of the event
- Being distracted by thoughts about food that keep you from focusing on other things like work, relationships, or enjoying entertainment (like a movie or concert)
- Pouring over recipes, restaurant menus and nutrition labels, and struggling to choose one thing or make a decision.
These are all examples of how food obsession can show up and impact daily life.
Why am I obsessed with food?
There are a variety of reasons why you might be obsessed with food. Let’s look at three main causes.
1. Health consciousness
There is a lot of overlap between eating disorder behaviors and what our culture normalizes as healthy. Newer evolutions of eating disorder diagnoses include a condition called orthorexia. Orthorexia is an obsessive focus on healthy eating that impairs the individual physically, mentally, emotionally or socially (1).
It is easy to see where obsessive food thoughts stem from, when we live in a culture that normalizes obsessing over health. I believe that food obsessions stemming from health consciousness have two main roots:
- Your preoccupation over how to eat healthily or perfectly results in a lot of thinking about food.
- Restricting results in increased food thoughts. Restriction can be both physical and psychological. Thinking there are certain foods you shouldn’t eat has similar effects to actually restricting your intake, and both make you think about food more.
Ultimately, your body is protecting itself. A restriction mindset has triggered the survival instinct in your body and brain that causes you to obsess over food in order to avoid starvation. I love framing it this way, because it shows us that our body is trustworthy in communicating to us what it needs to thrive, and gives us some clues about how we can care for ourselves better.
Neurodivergence (like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder) can result in an individual having obsessions or rules about food. In this case, a nutrition professional can help an individual meet their nutrition needs and expand their eating experiences in a way that is affirming to their neurodivergence.
3. Food insecurity
One other cause of food obsessions is food insecurity and/or a history of food scarcity or restriction. For an individual who has experienced, or still is experiencing, a lack of adequate access to food and nutrition to meet their needs, being hyper-focused on food amounts, eating times or types of food consumed is a natural response to their prior or current suffering. When someone has spent a portion of their life worried, stressed or anxious about having enough to eat, that protective survival instinct kicks in and they are likely to have more-than-normal thoughts about food and eating.
Just like with neurodivergence, the work that a nutrition or mental health professional can do to help someone heal from these types of food obsessions will take a different form than the tips we share here.
Is food obsession all or nothing?
Definitely not. This is not a black and white, yes or no kind of experience. Let’s envision eating and our relationship with food as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum we have complete food freedom through intuitive eating. And on the other end of the spectrum: a clinical eating disorder.
Disordered eating or having some degree of a dysfunctional relationship with food can fall anywhere in the middle. The impact on your life can range from minimal to extreme. Whether you identify with one or all of the examples I’ve shared here, you still deserve help and attention to move toward food freedom.
So what’s the difference between food obsessed and foodie?
It’s possible that an individual could fall into both categories. But here are some differences:
A foodie… gets great pleasure and enjoyment out of trying new foods, going outside their comfort zone with eating, and eating highly delicious and interesting foods as often as possible. A foodie is interested in all the new eateries opening up and wants to experience the best of a city’s food culture when they travel. A foodie enjoys experimenting with new recipes and food combinations and may take pictures to document and share their food journey.
Someone obsessed with food… researches a city’s food options so that they can eat within their self-prescribed food rules while traveling. Someone obsessed with food pours over nutrition information so that they know as much as possible about the “healthiness” of menu options. Someone obsessed with food may restrict their eating earlier in the day to “save up” for what they have deemed an indulgent meal later.
Is it okay to have food preferences?
There is a difference between food preferences and food rules. It’s totally OK (in fact, it’s expected!) to have food preferences. Part of the human experience is having likes and dislikes, cravings, favorites, and routines involving food.
Food preferences are present in a normal, natural and low-stress relationship with food. You have certain foods you like better and others that you wouldn’t choose from a menu. You have certain recipes that you gravitate toward and certain rhythms, like pizza on Friday nights.
Food rules, on the other hand, are strict. They are gripping. They override your preferences, or may have completely replaced/snuffed out your preferences, if you’ve been living by these rules for a long time. They might cause your internal food police to ask questions like, “Should I be eating that?” or “Is that a healthy food? or “How many calories is that?”
The difference between food rules and preferences
The main difference is that breaking a food rule causes stress, anxiety, shame or even an initial feeling of elation and adrenaline, followed by guilt later.
However, having to bend or ignore a food preference does not cause such a visceral, negative emotional response. An internal narrative here might sound more like, “I’m being served a dish I don’t love at a friend’s house, but I can eat it and just enjoy the company and atmosphere of being with my friends.” Or, “This restaurant is out of the one menu item that sounded the best to me. That’s OK, I can find something else I’m sure I’ll like!”
And what about food addiction? Is food addiction real?
There is some great research being conducted to better help us understand the concept of food addiction. As we discuss food addiction, this is what I want you to know: your feelings of being addicted to food are valid, the diagnosis is not.
This is what we know:
- Plenty of activities light up the same regions of the brain as drugs like cocaine. Society has not deemed all those activities “addictions”. Pleasure can come from a variety of stimuli, and just because something elicits a dopamine response does not mean that you are addicted to it.
- Eating is an evolutionarily necessary task. Your body and brain are designed to protect you from death by starvation, as we’ve already discussed. The brain rewards you for engaging in a survival activity, like eating, and the reward is enhanced when you are more hungry, like when you have been dieting, restricting or “saving up” for your next meal.
- Food addiction studies done in animals have shown that “addiction-like behaviors” like bingeing are only seen in the animals that had intermittent (interrupted, restricted) access to food (2).
The conclusion we can draw from this research is that food restriction leads to cravings and out-of-control feelings around food. But individuals that have unlimited and unrestricted access to food and unconditional permission to eat usually do not develop feelings of food addiction or obsession.
For another helpful summary of this topic, check out Evelyn Tribole’s post about food addiction.
How to stop obsessing over food and work toward food freedom
This process may be a long and winding one. Try to show yourself loads of compassion and patience. Healing may not be linear, but hold onto your hope of a future with less food thoughts. You can get there! Here are a few next steps for working toward decreasing your obsessions around food:
- Let go of your food rules one by one. You may start by writing down a list of all the “rules” you follow when eating. Then pick just one to start eliminating first. Think of it as an experiment, for example: “What would it be like if I allowed myself to have bread more than once a day?” After trying the experiment, ask yourself if the experience was overall positive, negative, or neutral. Allow that feedback to inform whether you repeat the experiment as-is, or adjust it in some way for next time. It can also be helpful to keep track of the feared outcomes that are attached to your rules (ie. if I allow myself to have bread more than once per day, it will turn into a binge). As you conduct your experiments, you can take note of whether those feared outcomes came true or not.
- Work toward feeling neutral about foods, and stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad”. This can include changing your internal narrative around foods. You may notice a thought like, “That food is bad for me.” and you can practice replacing it with a thought like, “That food contains carbohydrates and fats, which are both macronutrients my body needs to function and for me to feel my best.” Remember that foods exist on a spectrum, not a hierarchy! Some foods are really good at providing joy, others are really good at providing vitamins and minerals. Joy and nutritional value are equally important functions of food. At the end of the day all food provides energy, and getting enough energy is foundational to overall health – both physical and psychological.
- Eat frequently and include all food groups. Remember that not eating enough, being hungry, or having a restrictive mindset (having certain foods be off limits) can increase the frequency and intensity of your food thoughts. Eating regularly and frequently will help you, as well as including all the food groups and macronutrients – fats, proteins and carbohydrates. This should help increase your satisfaction and lasting fullness from meals and snacks.
- Acknowledge your thoughts, but remember that you don’t have to act on every thought. When you have an intrusive food thought creep in, it might be helpful to label it as a “food obsession thought” before deciding if or how you want to respond. Try not to shame yourself for having the thought, instead consider categorizing it as unhelpful and then moving on with whatever you were doing. If you like visuals, think about food obsession thoughts like clouds in the sky – stand back and observe them as they float by instead of engaging with them.
- Get help if it feels like a challenge that you can’t face on your own. If you’d like a professional to partner with you, one-on-one support with a dietitian is a great option. Or you can start by using free resources from non-diet dietitians, like this post which has my Nutrition Priority Pyramid, a tool I use to help clients get started on their journey to finding food freedom.
What you can look forward to in a life of freedom from food obsession:
A life without food obsession looks like saying yes to activities and social opportunities without thinking twice about the food options. You finally break the binge-restrict cycle. Eating becomes second-nature; deciding what and when to eat doesn’t require much conscious thought. You pick whatever sounds good off of the menu without feelings of guilt or shame. You quit food math! Calories, macronutrients, hours of fasting- no more tracking any of it. You regain space in your brain and calendar to live your best life.
So, why do you struggle with food obsession?
Did you resonate with any of what I shared here? If so, I hope you finish this post feeling understood, not so alone, and hopeful for what the future can hold for you.
If you found this post helpful and you’re looking for more, check out the guide I created – Your First 3 Steps to Food Freedom. I put it together because I want any and everyone to have the tools they need to start being more at peace with food, more confident in their own skin and more connected to their body.
- Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Nov;55(Suppl 2):55-69. doi: 10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6. Epub 2016 Jul 2. PMID: 27372453; PMCID: PMC5174153.