Nurturing an interest in nutrition is a great way to take ownership of your well-being; your diet influences so much of your health! For some people, however, spending too much time researching diets and planning meals can lead to a full-blown food obsession. The brain becomes constantly preoccupied with food, and everything else takes a back seat.
Mentally cataloging every portion can distract you from work, be mentally draining, and strip the pleasure of eating. These behaviors can strain your relationship with food and increase your risk of Orthorexia Nervosa, a form of disordered eating.1
This article will teach you how to recognize the signs of food obsession, review potential health risks, and offer suggestions on how to stop food-obsessive habits.
What Is Food Obsession?
People with a food obsession are constantly preoccupied with thoughts about food; they closely monitor everything they’ve eaten (or plan to eat). Although this level of detail can sound like dedication, dietitians would agree it's an intense approach to nutrition.
Having a fixation on food can make it harder to focus on other parts of your life. Work, maintaining social relationships, and even hobbies can start to take up too much time. Someone with a food obsession would rather devote their energy and time to thinking about food.
Is Food Obsession The Same Thing As A Food Addiction?
An addiction is a neuropsychological disorder that affects the brain, despite outdated philosophies that it was from a lack of ‘willpower.’ Satisfying an addiction stimulates the brain’s reward system and release of feel-good hormones (called endorphins). People become dependent on their addictions to feel positive sensations even if it jeopardizes their health.2
An obsession is different than an addiction. Obsessive behaviors can be ritualistic and must be completed in a specific order every time. There is a real fear that something terrible will happen if a person deviates or does not complete their ritual. A person with a food obsession might be afraid they will get sick if they don’t eat the same foods daily. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are fear-based, intrusive, and non-pleasurable.
Why Am I Obsessed With Food?
Food obsession behaviors can develop for several reasons. Genetic tendencies can make a person more inclined to develop obsessive traits.3 Sometimes, it can develop because of social settings or food rules learned from childhood. Taking time to learn the reasons behind your food obsession can help you build a plan to move past any fears confidently.
When daily life feels overwhelming, it’s normal to crave some form of control. It’s not fun to feel like decisions are made for you all the time, and understandably, you want to reclaim some power.
In these scenarios, it is common for someone to turn their focus to their diet. Even if they have limited choices over what they can eat, they still have the power to decide whether they will eat. This laser focus on meals can develop into a full-blown food obsession.
Your social circle heavily influences what you think during the day. This time of year, many people are talking about nutrition, diets, and even the cost of groceries. If food is the only thing your friends and family talk about, it will inevitably take up a lot of space in your brain.
Try to guide conversations to topics that don’t involve food. Ask about books they are reading, travel plans, and anything that sounds interesting to your core group. Setting boundaries can help decrease obsessive food thoughts from taking over.
It's possible you were taught food rules at a young age that now influence how you approach food. We aren’t going to point fingers at our caretakers; they passed on habits they believed were healthy.
As an adult, you can unlearn food rules. Many people get obsessed with food they are told not to eat. Freeing yourself from this mindset can be life-changing and completely change how you think about food.
Food obsession can develop if someone has experienced food scarcity. It doesn’t matter if it was an isolated event or a regular occurrence; not having enough food and water is traumatizing.
Ellyn Satter is a prolific nutrition researcher and registered dietitian who recommends that the nutrition hierarchy of needs (modeled after Maslow’s theory) start with enough food before focusing on other nutrition habits. 4
There are no guarantees this type of fear or food obsessive thoughts will ever go away, even if the fridge is fully stocked. Trauma cuts to the core, and everyone’s healing journey will differ.
People with a food obsession are at a higher risk of orthorexia nervosa (ON), a form of disordered eating characterized by an obsession with healthy eating.
People with ON restrict their diet and only eat specific foods or meals. They are afraid that consuming forbidden items will negatively impact their health. Eliminating too many foods, which can happen in advanced ON cases, increases the risk of nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition.1
Someone living with an obsession is constantly in a state of stress. They may look calm on the outside, but internally they are constantly worrying and preoccupied.5 If left unmanaged, chronic stress can have physical manifestations. Blood pressure levels can rise, immune function can weaken, and cardiovascular health can suffer.6
A restrictive eating style, typical of food obsession, can make it harder to socialize in group outings. You may lose the desire to attend gatherings and dining events, especially if there are any concerns that peers will comment about your eating habits. This can lead to isolation, and relationships and quality of life can decline.
Find Food Freedom
Obsessing about food is tiring, stressful, and all-consuming. Abandoning rules and restrictive habits can feel like coming up for a fresh breath of air. Instead of choosing foods because you think you should, opt for meals and items because you want them.
Here are five things you can do at home:
- Permit yourself to enjoy food. Obsessive habits are rooted in fear, and it can be scary for some people to go against rules they’ve been closely following. Try to highlight the positive outcomes of enjoying that food instead of focusing on the perceived negatives. “This cookie is so high in sugar” can become “This cookie is sweet, and I can’t wait to try it.”
- Make sure you are eating enough throughout the day. Are you obsessed with food, or are you hungry? When you feel hungry, your brain is hardwired to only think about food. Enjoy snacks and meals daily to ensure your body is adequately fueled.
- Eat high-quality carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, or sugar molecules, in the body. This is your body’s preferred source of energy. When your blood sugars dip, your cravings can hijack your appetite at your next meal. Again, your body will prompt you only think about food until it is replenished.
- Add mindfulness practices to your meal times. Being mindful of your eating habits means reflecting on your actions without judgment. A gut reaction can be, “no, I can’t eat that,” when instead, it could be, “oh, I wonder why I’m craving that food.” Possible reasons might be that you are hungry or bored! Knowing what is driving your actions can help you take mindful action in the future.
A food obsession does not develop overnight. Thought and eating patterns compound over the years, and it can take time to unlearn these habits. Be gentle with yourself as you move through this new chapter in your health journey.
While moving forward, be wary of any messages in the media that suggest there is only one right way of eating. These catchy phrases can stick in your brain and make you feel like it’s your only option to have a healthy diet. Examples include “clean eating” or “following a raw diet”.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet, and moderation is what we should all strive for. You may want to dive deeper into the all-foods-fit philosophy in nutrition. Instead of restricting foods, it teaches you to include all your favorites while prioritizing your health.
Nourish Can Help
A registered dietitian can help improve your relationship with food, decrease restrictive eating, and help you manage a food obsession.
Nourish has a team of registered dietitians who are all covered by insurance. The appointments are remote to help seamlessly fit into your schedule. Click here to learn more and book an appointment today!
- Scarff J. R. (2017). Orthorexia Nervosa: An Obsession With Healthy Eating. Federal practitioner : for the health care professionals of the VA, DoD, and PHS, 34(6), 36–39.
- Clay, S. W., Allen, J., & Parran, T. (2008). A review of addiction. Postgraduate medicine, 120(2), E01–E7.
- Pauls D. L. (2010). The genetics of obsessive-compulsive disorder: a review. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12(2), 149–163.
- Satter, E. (2007). Hierarchy of Food Needs. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39(5), S187–S188.
- Morgado, P., Freitas, D., Bessa, J. M., Sousa, N., & Cerqueira, J. J. (2013). Perceived Stress in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is Related with Obsessive but Not Compulsive Symptoms. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 21.
- Mariotti A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future science OA, 1(3), FSO23.
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