Do you think about what you will eat for lunch the second you finish breakfast? Do you feel out of control around certain foods and would rather not keep them around? You may be wondering if it is possible to not feel obsessed around food. As a dietitian, these are my top tips to help you to normalize your eating patterns and feel freer around food.
This article is targeted towards people who feel out of control around food, but not intended to treat those with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that generally require several levels of care in order to gain lasting relief from compulsions. If this is something that you think you might be struggling with I strongly advise you to talk to someone. Figure out what type of treatment might be available in your area.
If you do not feel comfortable talking with friends or family about your eating habits or compulsions, please feel free to reach out to me. This is something I have experience with both personally and professionally. You can contact me through my contact page.
I would love to help give you the push needed to seek help and achieve lasting recovery. Though this will not constitute a patient-provider relationship, I am happy to provide resources and recommendations for recovery dietitians and health care providers.
How Does Disordered Eating Differ From Eating Disorders?
While eating disorders are considered a mental illness, disordered eating patterns are disruptions in normal eating behavior. Disordered eating is becoming increasingly prevalent among both women and men at all stages in life.
This can be someone who severely restricts the types of foods you eat due to fear or food reactions. Or, something like only eating at night because you feel ashamed to eat in front of people. Disorder eating can be related to weight control but does not exclusively have to be.
It is estimated that 70 million people suffer from disordered eating behaviors (1). Only 30 million of those people are considered "clinical" which means the other 40 million do not receive an eating disorder diagnosis because they do not meet criterial (usually related to weight).
What Are Disordered Eating Tendencies?
Disordered eating patterns are any shift from normal eating habits that may impact the quality or quantity of your food intake. These deviations don't have to be tied to obsessive behaviors or even changes in weight, but they certainly can be.
An eating disorder is a medical diagnosis. Disordered eating patterns are not always as clearly defined. Disordered eating behaviors are not necessarily tied to poor health outcomes. Sometimes these disruptions in normal eating behavior can be completely harmless, but sometimes that is not the case.
Disordered eating tendencies can be fueled by the desire to lose weight or conform to societies body standards, or they can also be motivated by something as harmless as a food aversion.
Why Are We So Food Obsessed?
Compared to our ancestors, our society highlights different physical attributes as being ideal that are not necessarily associated with a strong, healthy body. Traditionally, a healthy woman was one who was functionally fit (able to walk, sprint, lift things). This woman would have had adequate stores of body fat in appropriate places (thighs, hips, breast) and has typical signs of health (bright skin, shiny hair, no visible signs of disease).
These qualities are relevant because they show that this theoretical woman had the ability to carry a child, survive periods of famine and provide for her young. Animalistic? Yes, but this is how are bodies are hardwired and this is why it is so hard for women to sustain a six-pack or skip meals without feeling a little crazy.
Changing our bodies natural shape is hard because you are fighting your genetics. Most women know where they carry fat and what body type they have.
For me, I am a mesomorph. I build muscle easily. Most of my weight is carried in my legs and booty. I have no boobs and most of the time you can see my abs under a healthy layer of fat. Even when I was "underweight" I still had thicker thighs yet my upper body became so thin it looked as if I would snap an ulna if I attempted a handstand.
My point is that you can try to fight your biology but your body wants to be a certain weight. And, it will fight to carry fat in certain places. Trying to alter your body shape and size is going to cause you to become more obsessed with food.
I am not saying that you can't try to change your body. It is your body. What I am saying is it might be more valuable to accept your body shape. Focus on making healthy foods choices that make you feel well. And, work towards athletic goals that make you feel powerful and accomplished, rather than physical goals that make you feel defeated.
5 Tips On How To Stop Feeling Obsessed With Food
Lying in bed at 9:00 PM thinking about what you are going to eat for breakfast the next day is no way to live. If you find that you struggle with control around food, or find yourself thinking about food at inappropriate times (daydreaming about a cheeseburger during sex?) these tips might help you to normalize your eating patterns and feel freer around food!
1. Quit Counting
Do you obsessively log every 1/4 bite on MyFitnessPal? Does macro counting take up a good portion of your brain function? These tools have an appropriate time and place, but are not always appropriate. Often times tracking your calories or macros can make you feel totally food obsessed.
When is Tracking a Good Idea?
Tracking your calories can be a good tool to help you visualize how much you are actually eating and get better grasp on portion sizes. If you have questions about how much you are intaking, and need the reassurance of a day of tracking, this may be okay. This should not be an every day thing.
Sometimes if you or your healthcare provider feels like you may not be eating enough, this is a necessary evil. Women who are trying to get their period back after being on hormonal birth control may benefit from tracking because undereating can hinder fertility efforts.
Big picture, it is not a long term solution.
When Can Calorie Counting Be Problematic?
Tracking your calories everyday can cause you to lose touch with your innate hunger cues. Although counterintuitive, it actually leads to both over and under eating.
Tracking can actually deter your weight loss or weight maintenance goals. How? Well, the calorie count on nutrition labels can actually be highly inaccurate. Studies show that foods can contain anywhere from 4%-50% more calories than stated on the label (2, 3, 4).
Additionally, most people underestimate their calorie intake and overestimate their caloric expenditure from exercise. I am not saying that you should round up when counting calories. What I am saying is you have internal hunger cues and hunger hormones that have a purpose. These biological functions, when working correctly, can tell you exactly how much you need to eat to maintain a healthy weight. This system is usually far more accurate than any tracker, and worth investing the time in getting to work correctly.
If you have been dieting for as long as you can remember getting this system to function properly won't happen overnight. You will under eat and over eat some days. But, eventually your body will be able to tell you how much food it needs and you will learn how to pick up on these internal cues.
For more guidance on learning to follow these internal cues, check out resources on Intuitive Eating.
2. Eat Enough
You need to intake at least your BMR in energy (more if you are exercising) in order to not feel food obsessed. Even if you are trying to lose weight you should never eat less than your BMR. I don't care what trainer or influencer tells you otherwise.
Your body needs this amount of energy to function properly, produce hormones adequately and feel safe. If you are eating less than your BMR consistently, I guarantee you that you will binge. It may take a day, or a week, but eventually your body will give in and you will overeat.
This begins a viscous cycle of undereating which triggers binging which leads to guilt which causes you to restrict. Do your body and brain a favor. Make sure you are getting enough to eat.
If you need help figuring out your calorie needs you can find out how to calculate them here. But, remember, this is just a tool. It should be used to give you guidance and make sure you are eating enough!
3. Enjoy a Good Breakfast
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I say that is crap. I don't care if you extend your fast until noon, or eat first thing in the morning. Eating a bowl of cereal is not going to do anything to improve your health.
Your first meal of the day is important but it should focus on slow-carbs, fats and protein. I don't think there is anything wrong with eating later in the day as long as your first meal is solid.
Whenever you have your first meal, make sure that it is more than carbs. Focus on slow releasing carbs like beans or veggies. Add healthy fat (eggs, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil), and about 20-40 grams of protein. The protein is a huge component of this!
Protein is the most commonly underconsumed macronutrient. Most healthy, active women need at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight for optimal health. Protein plays a significant role in helping you feel full and controlling blood sugar.
Blood sugar control can moderate cravings. By eating a solid, slow-burning breakfast you can minimize your blood sugar swings and not feel starving come lunchtime.
4. Indulge Your Cravings
If you have been thinking about pizza for 3 days without relief, eat the darn pizza. Do it without guilt and move on. If you deny yourself that slice of pizza you will continue to think about it for the next week until you wake up from a deprivation-induced coma with grease covered hands, a crumpled Domino's receipt and the remnants of what was a large pepperoni pizza. Or worse, you will have eaten 3 boxes of gluten-free crackers with a tub of cashew cheese and still be craving that freaking pizza.
I understand wanting to make healthy food choices. You can live a healthy lifestyle and still indulge your cravings. This is important so that you can lead a normal and full life. A normal life includes food that might not fit perfectly into your diet plan.
When you start adopting a healthier way of eating your cravings will change once the habit sets in. They won't be so viscous. But, not every craving you have can be satisfied by making a healthy alternative. Sometimes the real thing is the only thing that will smash the craving and as long as you don't suffer from food allergies or intolerances it may be a better more balanced choice just to indulge the craving.
5. Don't Restrict After You Overeat
So you ate too much for lunch, obviously you are going to have to eat lettuce and vinegar for dinner or else you are going to blow up like a balloon. Not exactly. Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for.
Overeating generally serves some kind of purpose. Triggers include things like training really hard in the gym and not fueling properly afterwards, perceived starvation (AKA restriction) or some kind of nutrient deficiency. You may overeat in a particularly stressful or painful time in your life. Food is often the only self soothing mechanism that many people know and there is nothing shameful about relying on it if that is what you need to get through a challenging time.
Although binging is not healthy, these are all totally normal and acceptable reasons for your body to be triggered into over-consumption. If you find that you have eaten too much at one meal, accept it and try to identify the reason why.
Are you chronically tired? Is something traumatic happening? Did you skip a meal? Address the underlying cause, and correct it. After that, move on! Eat a normal meal.
If you restrict your food intake after a binge you are likely to get caught in a binge-restrict cycle which gets harder to break the longer you perpetuate it. Do yourself a favor and skip the restriction. You are not likely to gain even 1/2 a pound after a binge because your body is incredibly smart and capable of self-regulating. Trust it!
If you find that you overeat out of habit it might be wise to change things up a bit. Maybe you always overeat at the end of the day while you are unwinding and watching Netflix, or immediately after you get home from work, or when you are home alone. Sometimes it is easiest to change a habit replacing it with something new.
If you feel like you are eating enough but you just can't seem to stop binging at specific times during the day then establish an end point and change activities. After you eat your meal go for a walk, clean the house, call a friend or check your email. Just do something to get your mind off of food. Sometimes it takes only 10 minutes of a different activity to reduce your desire to continue to eat past fullness.
What are your triggers for overeating and what are you working on to address them? Start a conversation in the comments below!