Is food constantly in your thoughts? Even if you’re not having urges to binge, are you incessantly thinking about eating?
This post will help you learn to manage these bothersome food thoughts.
You can listen to a audio version of what follows at BrainoverBinge.com/subscribe (Scroll down on that page until you see the audio except from course Lesson 8: Food Thoughts)
In addition to your struggles with bingeing, you may feel like food takes up too much of your brain space. If you’re around food, you may have a hard time focusing on anything else. Even if you’re not necessarily thinking about binge eating or feeling that impulse to eat very large quantities of food, you might be thinking about what’s in your refrigerator or what you’re going to eat next.
You may be at work and trying to get things done, and all you can think about is getting your lunch, even if you’re not hungry yet. If this is the case for you, you may find yourself eating just to make those incessant thoughts about eating go away. Eating might feel like it just quiets your mind for a minute—but then once you’re done eating—it’s possible that more thoughts start to pop up about what you’re going to have next. It can feel exhausting to be constantly thinking about eating or trying to talk yourself out of eating. Understandably, you want to be able to concentrate on the rest of your life and not just concentrate on food.
It’s definitely not your fault that you’re feeling this way and that you’re having these incessant thoughts, but it’s important to accept that this is simply the way that your brain is wired at this point in time. Getting upset at the food thoughts, or strongly wishing they would go away, or getting upset at yourself is only going bring more attention to these food thoughts. So as much as you can, try not to react emotionally to these thoughts. Notice them with a level of detachment, so that you’re observing these thoughts without so much judgment.
As far as why your brain seems to be so zoned in on food, there could be various reasons for it. One factor could be a natural tendency based in your genetics that does make you more attracted to food. Everyone is different, and some people do find food more rewarding than others. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It’s just part of a normal variation. The reason that you’re so zoned in on food could also have to do with past dieting and the fact that your lower brain is still trying to protect you—by encouraging you to eat as much as possible.
This fixation on food could have something to do with conditioning from childhood—if you were constantly given food—and now your body and brain still expects that constant supply of food. It’s possible that a partial cause could be some of the types of food that you’re eating, which may be causing drops in blood sugar and therefore some thoughts about getting more food to get your blood sugar back up. Another cause could be that the binge eating itself has trained your brain to make food a priority, even when you’re not bingeing.
But whatever the theoretical cause may be, you can learn to redirect your focus and change this habit of thinking about food too much—and if the cause has anything to do with the types of food you’re eating, you can look at that as well. Even if the cause has some of its roots in you being more genetically attracted to food and rewarding experiences, that does not mean you’re destined to be constantly consumed with food thoughts. Knowing your tendencies helps you deal with those tendencies appropriately. Once you’re self-aware of whatever your susceptibilities may be, you can take steps to help yourself.
For example, if you’re naturally prone to anxiety or worrisome thoughts, you can be prepared for them and you can use strategies for calming yourself down in difficult moments. If you’re naturally more prone to focus on food, then you can be prepared for the thoughts to come up and you can use strategies that help you turn your attention elsewhere. This tendency is probably very common, but it does not have to interfere with your life. Everyone is susceptible to something, but your genetics and your brain-based tendencies are not your destiny. Your brain is plastic, it can change. You can teach it to function at its best, and take advantage of your strengths—and you can simply be aware of some of the thoughts and the behaviors that you’re at risk of engaging in, and then take steps to prevent that.
So far, I’ve basically explained some of the possible reasons you may be focused on food and why it’s important to accept it, and also believe that change is possible. I’ve also mentioned that learning to refocus your attention will be very important to changing this tendency. Through the rest of this discussion, I’m going to give you some suggestions for learning to shift your attention away from food and onto other things.
My first suggestion is to set the proper expectations.
Even when you bring your food thoughts down to a normal level, you should still expect to have food thoughts. Normal eaters enjoy eating, they look forward to eating, they certainly may have thoughts that pop into their head while they’re working or doing other things about what they’re going to eat next. They’ll probably look forward to their lunch break or look forward to getting home for dinner. Normal eaters also have feelings of desire surface when they have these food thoughts. They may think about how delicious something is going to be. They’ll definitely look forward to eating a great dessert. If their favorite food is around at a party, they may be thinking about it more than they would like to.
These examples are just to show you that you do not need to label all of your food thoughts as problematic. It’s normal to have a desire for food and thoughts about food. But I want that to have its proper place in your life and not feel like it’s taking over your mind. You’ll want to get to a place where your thoughts about food feel more fleeting, and less incessant. You’re certainly capable of bringing your food thoughts down to a level that feels much healthier to you, but make sure you’re not expecting them to go away completely.
My second suggestion for refocusing your attention is to notice when you’re not thinking about food.
I know it can sometimes feel that you’re thinking about food all the time, but I know that there are moments in the day when you’re not thinking about it. There are times when you’re focusing fully on your work or on something else in your life. I want you to notice that and see that your brain does have the capacity to go in other directions. Now, I realize that looking for those moments that you’re not thinking about food and then possibly saying, “Wow, this is great. I’m not thinking about food right now” can possibly have the unintended effect of making you then think about food. So try to do this in a way that you’re just observing your mind in a relaxed way, instead of constantly judging whether or not you’re thinking about food in that particular moment.
My third suggestion is to notice when your mind wanders onto other things that are not food, and then realize that the food thoughts don’t have to have so much significance.
I’m going to explain what I mean by this. Right now you may be thinking that when your mind wanders, food is the only thing that it’s turning to. But when you step back and observe your mind, you’ll notice that you have wandering thoughts of other things as well—but the difference is that you don’t take those other thoughts so seriously. You likely don’t get mad at those other thoughts that your mind is creating. You don’t criticize yourself for having those thoughts. You don’t think those other thoughts mean that you’re diseased or damaged. You just let those thoughts come and go.
Try to view your food thoughts as just one type of countless thoughts that run through your head during the day. When you view the food thought just like any other thought, you’ll see that you can have the food thoughts running through your head and still do what you need to do in your life—because that’s exactly what you do when you’re experiencing other types of thoughts.
My last suggestion for redirecting your attention is to simply refocus, refocus, refocus.
When you notice the food thoughts, you can redirect your attention back to the present moment and focus on whatever you’re doing or whatever you want to focus on. You may need to refocus a lot at first, but it will get easier over time. You could compare this to a meditation practice. When you do a meditation practice, your mind naturally wanders, and then you bring your attention back to a focal point or a mantra. And when you first start a meditation practice, you may need to refocus your attention on the mantra or on the focal point hundreds of times, even within just a minute—but it gets easier over time, and your brain starts to stay more and more focused on what you want to be focusing on.
It’s the same with the food thoughts. You may need to bring your attention back from the food thoughts onto something else many, many times before it starts to become more effortless and the food thoughts start appearing less and less. Your brain learns that the thoughts you focus attention on are the ones that are important to you, and will keep producing those thoughts over and over; but when you stop focusing attention on certain thoughts, the brain will learn that those thoughts have less significance to you, and the food thoughts will stop being so intrusive in your life.
One last thing I want to mention here is that, if you are struggling with incessant food thoughts—just make sure that you are eating enough food. Everything I’ve said here assumes that the problem does not lie in current restriction. If you are restricting and you start nourishing yourself well, you’ll likely find that a lot of these food thoughts simply go away on their own.
If you want extra guidance as you learn to develop a healthy relationship with exercise, food, and weight, here are some resources for additional support:
Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.
Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, weekly group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.
One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.
I want you to escape the daily pain that bingeing brings. I want you to stop eating in an out-of-control way that makes you feel sick and ashamed. I want you to get your life back, so that you can pursue what is important to you. I also want you to eat in a way that works for you and makes you feel nourished and satisfied.
I do not want you to make it your goal to eat perfectly. I do not want you to think that stopping binge eating also means learning how to stick to a strict eating plan. I do not want you to feel like you have to avoid all unhealthy foods, or say no to yourself every time you want to eat something just for pleasure, or stop acting on all desires for food that is not in line with a certain diet.
My goal is to teach you how to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately; my goal is not to teach you to how to stick to a diet. This post is inspired by Episode 49 and Episode 12 of my podcast, and I hope it helps clear up the intent of the Brain over Binge approach.
Binge eating recovery includes giving up restrictive dieting
If you are familiar with my blog, podcast, or books, you know about the strategy of dismissing binge urges, which is the practice of separating yourself from the lower brain’s desire to binge (listen to Episode 5), and not acting on the thoughts and feelings that encourage binge eating (listen to Episode 7).
You can also learn more about dismissing urges to binge in my free 30-page guide, the Brain over Binge Basics.
What I teach is for ending binge eating, and although I do believe that similar methods can be used to help with other problematic eating habits, I want to make it clear that the Brain over Binge approach is never about learning how to stick to a restrictive diet. It is never about helping you follow rigid weight-loss plans, or helping you eat less than you physically need—because that would be extremely harmful to your recovery.
A big part of my approach is about helping you give up restrictive dieting and implement nourishing eating habits that work for you. I also believe in learning to allow yourself all types of food in moderation, and avoiding the harmful mindset that can develop when you have “forbidden” foods. (You can learn more about giving up the dieting mentality in Episode 48). I realize that not everyone can eat all types of food due to certain health conditions, so another way of saying this is that I believe in eating in the least restrictive way that’s possible for you.
Dismissing too many eating urges is harmful
Over the years of working with binge eaters, I’ve found that some people want to ignore my advice about eating enough, and only want to focus on dismissing urges—and this does not work and prevents recovery. Some people even want to take it a step further and start dismissing not only binge urges, but urges to eat anything that is not in line with a strict diet plan. When used in this way, dismissing urges becomes a dieting strategy in and of itself, which is the opposite of my intention.
The only way that dismissing binge urges works to get rid of binge eating for good is if you’re also eating adequately. If you are dismissing too many desires to eat, then you’ll remain in a food-deprived, survival-instinct-driven state that fuels binge eating.
Now, I know that creators of some diets or weight loss plans might step in here and argue that their eating plans are adequate and not overly restrictive. It’s possible for that to be true in some cases—meaning that the way of eating required for a certain “diet” actually does meet your physical needs and nourishes you well. But that’s not the type of diet I’m talking about, and it’s also not the issue I’m raising today. This post is about clarifying the intention of the Brain over Binge approach; it’s not about evaluating the merits of each and every diet plan that is out there.
Not sticking to a diet is not binge eating
Even if you could argue that a certain “diet” is technically an adequate and nourishing way to eat, my approach is still not meant to be a way for you to dismiss every urge to veer from that plan. I don’t think it’s necessary to have perfect eating habits, and in many ways, trying to get your eating habits exactly right is counterproductive in recovery. This is why Brain over Binge is not and should not be used as a “how to stick to a diet” strategy—that is contrary to the message I want to send.
Dismissing urges is not a way to avoiding eating any food that’s not “keto,” or “paleo,” or “vegan.” It is not a way to stop eating anything at all when you are fasting, and it is not a way to say no to all processed foods or any foods you think are unhealthy.
Eating sugar is not bingeing, eating carbs is not bingeing, eating meat is not bingeing, eating junk food is not bingeing—unless of course, you are bingeing on these things. Likewise, eating when you think you shouldn’t be eating, or when a diet plan says you shouldn’t be eating is not bingeing—unless of course you are bingeing at those times.
There is certainly value in not acting on all of the food cravings that you have. There are benefits of being able to observe your thoughts about eating and then to choose which thoughts to act on and which to ignore. There are benefits of being able to decide to eat foods that make you feel good. My approach is never about giving up on health. It’s never about eating anything you want, anytime you want, without regard for the effect food has on you. It is absolutely appropriate to not follow your every desire for food.
Furthermore, if there’s a certain way of eating that works well for you and is adequate and satisfying, then it may make sense to dismiss thoughts that cause you to veer too much from that way of eating—and this is especially true if you need to eat a certain way for medical reasons. I realize this may seem like a subtle distinction, but deciding to eat in a specific way to take care of yourself is very different from following a restrictive diet and then trying to dismiss urges to eat anything off of that diet. For example, someone with a dairy sensitivity who chooses to dismiss thoughts of eating dairy is not the same as someone who implements a strict calorie deficit and then tries to dismiss urges to eat any additional calories.
Get rid of the binge problem, don’t aim for perfect eating
To further explain why stopping the binge eating habit does not include learning how to stick to a diet, I’m going to end with an excerpt from the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (from the Healthy Eating chapter). I hope that reading the following few paragraphs helps you better understand the purpose of the Brain over Binge approach, and the purpose of separating your higher brain from your lower brain—in a way that promotes recovery, not dieting.
“It’s common for binge eaters to mistakenly merge the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants any unhealthy food. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of all junk food by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain and their higher brain as their “healthy eating” brain. I don’t think this is useful, especially when first trying to quit binge eating, because it can lead to an “all or nothing” trap. When you start trying to view all of your cravings for anything unhealthy as neurological junk, it can be overwhelming.
It can lead you to believe that if you follow a desire for a dessert or some processed or convenience food, then your lower brain has already won, so you’ll be primed to believe any thoughts that say you “might as well binge.” You don’t actually have a good brain and a bad brain, because both the lower and the higher brain are necessary for a rich human existence. Your lower brain, with its pleasure centers, is indeed behind most of your junk-food cravings, but everyone has those. The lower brain also causes you to crave and take pleasure in delicious, healthy food as well, as desire for food is rarely a purely rational experience. Recovery is about trying to get rid of the “glitch” in your reward system, not banish the system altogether.
Craving french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you. If you choose to follow those brain signals and have the fries, great—enjoy them! If you choose not to, then that’s fine too—have some organic carrot sticks with almond butter instead, and enjoy those! Don’t think that if you choose the french fries, you are giving in to a binge urge. Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge. It won’t. There will be other opportunities for fries. The methods and advice in this book are for quitting binge eating, not for sticking to very strict, healthy-food-only eating plans and banishing all cravings for anything unhealthy.” (pgs. 262-263)
I encourage you to find a balance in your eating that works for you, but remember, you never have to eat perfectly!
If you want extra guidance in learning how to eat normally, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for $18.99 per month.
I want to address the question of whether or not to keep trigger foods at home while you are trying to stop binge eating. Trigger food is a popular term in eating disorder recovery conversations that usually refers to the foods that tend to make binge eaters feel out of control and binge. If you’ve read Brain over Binge or listened to my podcast, you know that I don’t believe any food can cause binge eating—because the urges to binge are the only direct cause. So, when I refer to trigger foods in this blog post, I mean foods that commonly to lead to your urges to binge, or foods that you typically eat large amounts of when you follow the urges, or foods that are simply linked to binge eating in your mind.
Distancing yourself from trigger foods doesn’t cure binge eating
If keeping trigger foods out of the house was the cure for bingeing, then that would make recovery pretty straightforward—but if you’re anything like I was as a binge eater, you just find a way to get the food anyway or find something else to eat too much of. Home isn’t the only place to binge, and trigger foods aren’t the only foods that you binge on. Also, it’s not realistic to expect to be able to control all of the food that comes through your door—because roommates, children, parents, partners, relatives, or friends who share or visit your home also need to eat, and they may have different ideas about what food to have on hand.
Even though keeping trigger foods out of the home is not a cure for binge eating, it’s still one factor to consider when approaching recovery. I believe that it is an individual decision, and there isn’t one right or wrong way. If you think about it, the decision of what foods to have at home is one that all people need to make, even if they don’t have a history of an eating disorder. When you look at this choice as just a basic part of living—something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life—it can take off some of the pressure you may be feeling right now.
Will the trigger foods make me binge more?
I realize that the additional consideration during recovery is that you may be worried that certain foods will lead to increased binges, but if you remember that all the trigger foods can do is lead to increased urges, you take your power back. You give yourself the freedom to choose what foods to have or not have at home, and you can learn to dismiss the urges that are linked to those foods. (If you are new to the concept of dismissing urges, you can get my free eBook, the Brain over Binge Basics to help you get started).
It’s okay if you don’t feel ready to have any and all types of food at home right now, but with time and practice, you can gain confidence that you can be around any food and eat any food—without binge eating. On Episode 76 of the podcast, my guest shared her own experience of reintroducing trigger foods into her life, and I think you will find it helpful.
Food temptation is a universal experience
It also helps to realize that feeling tempted by certain foods at home is common, and although the urges to binge will fade, feeling drawn toward food pleasure will never go away completely. Normal eaters often say that they don’t like to have, for example, a dessert item in the house because they believe they’ll eat too much of it, or they ate too much of it last time it was in the house. The reality is that sometimes it’s just easier for anyone—with or without a binge eating issue—to simply not have something tempting in close proximity, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I explained that these choices extend beyond food, and I drew a comparison to my choice at the time to not buy paper towels, because when I did, I used too many of them. My kids were very young at the time, and made so many messes, and paper towels were way too convenient. If I didn’t have paper towels in the house, I put myself in a situation where I had to take the time to wash rags and keep them ready for use. Now that my kids are older and there aren’t as many spills, I do buy paper towels again, but I don’t overuse them.
Giving up binge eating and dieting makes foods less “triggering”
The paper towel example could also help you see that your decisions about what to keep in the house can change over time, and if you decide to avoid buying a certain trigger food right now, you don’t have to avoid buying it forever. One day, you may decide you want that food in your house again, and you’ll learn to overcome the temptation, or it simply won’t be as appealing to you once your binge eating habit has stopped. Foods that seem so tempting today could become foods you don’t even think about in the future—this is a wonderful benefit of giving up the dieting mindset and learning to eat everything in moderation.
I wrote a detailed post to share how this happened for me regarding my biggest trigger food—sugary cereal—and how I can now have boxes of it in my house and not even want any (read the post: How I Stopped Binge Eating Cereal and Craving it Too). It’s an amazing experience when you first realize your trigger foods are no longer triggering, and that they hold no power over you. It gives you so much freedom to be able to be around any type of food and know it won’t lead to a binge. But, everyone gets there in their own way and on their own timeline, and it’s okay if you’re not there yet.
Just make the best decisions that you can right now as far as what to keep in the house to support yourself in recovery, knowing that you can make adjustments, and add new foods over time. Eventually your urges to binge will fade and go away completely, and all of the things that once triggered them—including certain foods—will no longer lead to urges. You’ll be left with some standard temptation and cravings like all normal eaters, but it will be so much more manageable. You’ll find yourself doing things that you never thought were possible—like forgetting you have leftover cake from a birthday party in your house, or throwing out half of a batch of cookies you baked last week with your kids because you never ate them.
Dismissing urges to buy the binge foods
I want to take a step back and also talk about buying the foods at the store, because that’s ultimately how they get to your home. Even if you make a firm decision about what foods you want to have in your house, and that doesn’t include many of your trigger foods, your lower brain might try to change your mind at the grocery. You might feel urges to buy a lot of binge foods—just in case. This is all part of the habit—you’re simply used to buying them, so habitually, you feel like you need to keep buying them. An example I thought of, which I’ve experienced myself, is a parent whose child gets older and out-grows the baby items that they used to need frequently; but the parent still finds herself automatically going down the baby food or diaper aisle.
You can think of urges you have in the store as just your lower brain telling you what it thinks you need—based on your past shopping and eating behaviors—but now that you have changed, you don’t need to follow those messages anymore. Dismissing urges to buy the binge food is good practice for dismissing urges to actually binge. You don’t have to get upset with your brain for encouraging you to buy certain things, just try to observe your thoughts and gently remind yourself that you no longer binge. You don’t have to tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have certain foods—because you can learn to buy and eat anything you want in moderation, provided there are no allergies or other health issues. However, if you only want to get the food to binge on it, then you can react to the urge to buy it like the parent of an older child would react to an urge to buy baby food—you can just shrug it off, maybe smile a little, and say, “Oh, I don’t actually need that anymore.”
In your case, it might not be that you don’t need any amount of a certain food, but you may simply need much less now that you are eating in a normal way. You don’t want to create a situation where you’re saying no to yourself too often for food you actually like and want in your house. You ultimately want to find a balance of foods that are going to nourish you, and foods that you buy purely for pleasure. Again, this is something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life as part of taking care of yourself and the people who share your home and food.
If you can keep a grateful mindset for all of the food you have the ability to buy and keep in your house, it can help the food feel like a gift instead of something to fear—and this can help your decisions surrounding food feel easier.
If you want extra guidance, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for only $18.99 per month.