Food is necessary for us to live, and it’s also (mostly) delicious. But it can sometimes be difficult to stop thinking about food — and this can actively mess with your day-to-day. So how do you stop or slow those thoughts?
Eating takes center stage at a whole bunch of social events and celebrations. As a result, your brain often links it to positive memories and delights all your senses.
It’s way too easy to get lost in a sea of daydreams about enjoying your favorite foods… all the time. Like, every moment.
Ways to manage food obsession
Figuring out how to stop thinking about food means understanding why you’re thinking about it.
Methods for shifting your focus away from food include:
- taking the time to understand your personal triggers
- keeping a food journal
- listening to your body
- eating nutritionally dense snacks
- trying mindful eating
Thinking about food throughout the day and when you’re hungry is completely normal. But thinking about food constantly? That may be a sign that you’re undernourished or have disordered eating — and it could lead to a full-blown eating disorder if you don’t address these thoughts early on.
For this reason, food obsession can be a legitimate cause for concern. Don’t let it run amok.
If you need to clear your head and focus on something other than your next meal, we’ve got your back.
One of the biggest secrets to controlling your thoughts about food is understanding what triggers your food thoughts and behaviors.
So many things can trigger food thoughts, and they’re often unique to you. To find a solution, you need to pinpoint the source of those thoughts.
Many times, that sounds easier than it is. It requires you to do some digging beneath the surface and some real self-research.
It’s also important to note that what works for someone else may not work for you. It might take a little patience and trial and error. But you’ll figure out what works for you.
1. Avoid attaching shame to the thought of food
Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about food.
But everyone has a different relationship with food. For many people, the thought of food may trigger feelings of guilt, shame, and frustration.
If you feel shameful about your feelings about food, then you might put yourself down whenever you think about food. You might assume that doing this will encourage you to stop thinking about it.
But research has actually found that the opposite is true. Some studies show that feeling guilty and shameful about your food choices or weight can lead to overeating and actually make it harder to lose weight.
A small 2019 study focusing on college-age women found a link between feelings of shame toward food and an increased likelihood of binge eating behaviors. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, can be helpful in protecting people against these feelings.
Intuitive eating is a dietary school of thought that does away with strict dieting. Instead, people who follow this method are encouraged to listen to the needs of their bodies and nurture self-respect and patience.
A 2014 study (focusing on dieters’ relationship with chocolate cake, no less) found that while guilt can sometimes motivate people to change, it can also lead to feelings of helplessness and a loss of control.
The researchers found that guilt didn’t help people eat more healthfully. Participants who associated guilt with chocolate cake had more trouble controlling their eating behavior and were more likely to gain weight.
So, instead of criticizing yourself for thinking about food, try to focus more on what’s going on that’s making you feel so bad about it.
PSA: This can take time. Be kind to yourself.
2. Don’t exclude certain foods outright
If you’re constantly thinking about, say, ice cream, you might think the best thing to do is just not to allow yourself a simple scoop ever again. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Not so much. A small 2017 study suggests that restricting certain foods might actually make you think about them more, not less.
Research has found that eliminating foods and being super strict about what you eat isn’t sustainable for a long time.
If there’s a certain food you think about more than others, don’t eliminate it completely. Instead, eat a small amount of it. You’ll likely stop fixating on it because you’ve already had it.
3. Listen to your body
Your bod knows.
When allowing yourself to eat a small amount of something you’re really craving, you have to listen to your body. Learn to trust your body’s hunger and fullness cues instead of second-guessing yourself.
Understanding when you’re hungry and need to eat is important because it ensures you’re not depriving yourself of calories.
If you’re not eating enough, you’re going to feel some unpleasant side effects, like a loss of energy. This can trigger your brain and make you think about food even more.
In other words: Eat when you’re hungry. And eat enough calories for your body to stay satisfied.
4. Eat healthy snacks that fill you up
Again, depriving yourself is not the way to stop thinking about food, which is why snacks can be so essential. The key is to choose snacks that are filling, satisfying, and nutritionally dense.
Research suggests that eating nutritious snacks can help you control your appetite and avoid overeating during your next meal. Whole foods that are high in protein, fiber, and whole grains can help keep you feeling full longer.
Healthy, satisfying snack ideas
You don’t have to deprive yourself of a healthy snack when you’re hungry — there are always options like these:
- Greek yogurt with mixed berries
- apples with nut butter
- vegetables with hummus
- home-popped corn
- cottage cheese with cherry tomatoes
- whole-grain crackers with sliced cheese
- hard-boiled eggs
- mixed nuts
- ricotta cheese with fruit
We’ve got even more healthy snack ideas where those came from.
5. Drink plenty of water
Water just hits different. #H2OhYeah
Staying hydrated is essential for your overall health. But a small 2019 study suggested that drinking enough water each day might also help reduce cravings for salty foods.
Another small study (involving only 49 people) found that drinking a lot of water throughout the day suppressed hunger in a similar way across several weight groups.
But drinking water wasn’t linked to a significant change in the energy intake of participants with overweight or obesity, when compared to those with lower body weights.
And a small 2018 study found that participants who drank water before a meal ate less than those who didn’t drink water with their meals.
6. Keep a food journal
If it goes in your mouth, it goes in the jotter pad.
Keeping a dedicated food journal isn’t just a way to monitor what’s going in your mouth but also a way to better understand your thoughts and feelings about food. It might also help you see what triggers you to think about food even when you’re not hungry.
Try using a food journal for at least a week. Write down everything you eat and make note of any potential triggers around you at the time you’re eating, such as how you’re feeling, where you are, and who you’re with.
Avoiding food obsession triggers
After a few days, read over your journal to see if you can identify any patterns that may have nudged your brain in the direction of food. Once you start to recognize a pattern, you’ll be better able to limit your exposure to your triggers.
For example, you might notice that you snack mindlessly every time you watch TV. To change this, you can start avoiding snacks while watching TV or spending less time in front of the goggle box.
Other common triggers include:
7. Distract yourself until the urge stops
You should never avoid legitimate hunger cues.
But if you’re thinking about food when you know you’re not hungry (for example, if you’re full from a large meal but suddenly find yourself thinking about a snack), you might want to simply distract yourself until the thought goes away.
How to distract yourself from food thoughts
Some constructive ways to keep yourself busy until your food thoughts disappear:
- Take a break from whatever you’re doing and switch up your focus.
- Stand up to stretch.
- Take a walk.
- Read something you’re interested in.
- Work on a craft or hobby that requires your full attention.
- Meditate for a few minutes.
- Journal about your thoughts.
- Do a short yoga workout.
- Go outside for fresh air.
8. Try mindful eating
Mindful eating means actively being aware of the full mind and body experience you have while eating.
So, instead of sitting down to eat dinner while scrolling through social media, you would sit down with no distractions, eat slowly, and think about how the food makes you feel.
A 2017 study involving 348 people found that mindful eating can limit impulsive food choices.
And a 2017 research review concluded that mindful eating is effective for weight management. It makes you more aware of your body’s cues to eat rather than external cues. This review also noted that mindful eating could be helpful for problematic eating behaviors.
How to practice mindful eating
Some tips for successfully practicing mindful eating:
- Reflect on how you feel before you start eating.
- Sit down instead of eating on the go.
- Switch off any distractions.
- Dole out your portion rather than eating from a bag or box.
- Express gratitude before you start eating.
- Chew a lot and eat slowly.
- Put your utensils down between bites.
9. Exercise or move around
Looking at images of food can trigger food obsession. And certain types of exercise may be the key to changing how your brain responds to those images.
A small 2014 study on 15 healthy men and a small 2013 study involving 37 people examined the effects of food images on the brain. Both found that photos of high calorie foods stimulated the brain’s reward centers less after exercise.
These findings suggest that exercise might help reduce urges to eat high calorie foods. But these studies are tiny, and more research is needed on this topic.
Exercise may not limit your appetite, but it has plenty of other health benefits that make it worth trying. You don’t need to do a 45-minute cardio session every time — a brisk walk could be enough.
10. Ask for support from a pro
If you feel like you think about food, body image, or eating habits so much that it’s interfering with your daily life, there’s no shame in asking a medical professional for help.
A physician, registered dietitian, or psychological practitioner may be able to help you work through mental blocks and triggers and figure out some solid ways to stop thinking about food so often.
Constant thoughts about food can be relatively harmless (but annoying). But they can be a symptom of a bigger issue, like a food obsession or eating disorder.
Symptoms of food obsession
Food obsession, or food addiction, usually involves binge eating, cravings, and a loss of control around food. It’s more intense than just thinking about your favorite foods a lot.
To figure out if your thoughts about food are turning into a disorder, consider whether you have these symptoms:
- consistently having food cravings even when you’re full
- eating more than you want to on a regular basis
- almost always eating until you’re overfull
- feeling guilty about eating so much but doing it again shortly afterward
- hiding your eating from others
- feeling unable to stop
When to call a doctor
Disordered eating isn’t the same as an eating disorder. But it does involve concerning thoughts and behaviors around food and how you see your body — and it could lead to an eating disorder further down the line.
It’s important to identify and work through food obsession or any kind of disordered eating. If these thoughts control your day, it’s best to seek help from a healthcare provider.
Eating should be joyful and rejuvenating, not uncomfortable and shameful. A medical professional can help you work through food obsessive behaviors in effective ways.
If you feel you need professional support but don’t know who to contact, you can visit the National Eating Disorders Association website for information and a live chat feature.
You can also call or text NEDA professionals at 1 (800) 931-2237, Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (ET) and Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET).
There are two reasons we think about food so often, and both are more scientific than just “it tastes good.”
Your brain regulates hunger and food intake with two separate but interrelated pathways: the homeostatic and hedonic pathways. Only one of these pathways needs to activate to make you think about food.
Here’s a look at how they work together (and apart).
The homeostatic pathway is in charge of regulating your appetite. It fires up whenever your body is in a calorie deficit.
Your body needs the right amount of calories to produce energy and maintain basic metabolic functions. When your homeostatic pathway is triggered, that’s basically your body telling your brain you need energy from food.
Your body releases hormones, including leptin and ghrelin (often called “hunger hormones”), to let your brain know when you’re hungry or full. Those signals can make you think about food.
Leptin, which suppresses hunger and thoughts about food, circulates when your body has enough energy. Ghrelin causes signs of hunger and thoughts about food and is released when your body is low on energy.
If your homeostatic pathway triggers, it means you’re genuinely hungry and you should eat.
The hedonic pathway often causes food cravings even when your body has more than enough energy. It can even override the homeostatic pathway.
When the hedonic pathway activates, you might find yourself craving hyperpalatable foods, including foods high in fat, salt, and simple sugars, like candy and desserts. These foods often trigger sensory receptors in your brain that link to feelings of pleasure and reward.
Your immediate environment may trigger the hedonic pathway. Other triggers may include thoughts, advertising, emotions, and stress. Even just hearing someone talk about food could trigger this pathway.
Research suggests that hyperpalatable foods can stimulate the hedonic pathway and encourage addiction-like behaviors, such as food obsession.
The studies on this topic have been small and have mainly been performed on animals. More research is a must before we’ll truly understand how these pathways work in humans. But they point to the reasons we think about food in the ways we do.
Sensors in the gut
Your brain isn’t the only part of your body that can trigger food cravings.
Some new research suggests gastrointestinal sensors in your gut might trigger your appetite for certain foods. Some of these sensors may connect to your brain’s reward centers.
Thinking about food is a normal part of life, but some people feel like they think about it too much. Learning how to stop thinking about food starts with understanding why you’re thinking about it.
If your hedonic pathway has been triggered, it could mean environmental or emotional factors are causing you to have cravings.
To stop thinking about food all the time, try measures like mindful eating, keeping a food journal, drinking plenty of water, and working out.
If your thoughts about food feel like they’re taking over your life, consider getting help from a trained professional.