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.
As you work on ending binge eating, do you find yourself saying, I don’t know how to eat? Feeling confused about how to approach normal eating might create overwhelm and cause you to want to give up on recovery. Today, I’m going to talk about dropping the I don’t know thoughts around food. I want to help you stop telling yourself that you don’t know how to make eating choices, and help you start feeling more confident in your food decisions.
Why It Feels Like You Don’t Know How to Eat in Binge Eating Recovery
The I don’t know how to eat thoughts likely seem very believable and true right now, but you can learn to overcome them. It’s necessary to overcome them because you will need the essential ability to make food choices throughout your life. Deciding what, when, how, and where to eat is something you will always need to do many times every day. It’s completely understandable if that feels impossible right now, because eating likely has not come naturally to you for a long time. You’ve probably spent months, years, or even decades not only binge eating, but also trying to follow certain diets, or meal plans, or fasting regimens, or specific food rules or requirements.
Restrictive dieting and binge eating can definitely make you lose touch with your innate ability to simply make food decisions that feel right in the moment and then move on with your life. If you’ve followed my blog or podcast, or read my books, you know that in order to recover from binge eating, it’s vital to give up restrictive dieting. However, when you do this and no longer have a “diet” to follow, it can lead to you feeling lost. You may sit down at meals and wonder how much is “normal” or how much is too much, or you may overthink your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. You may worry about certain foods making you gain weight or worry that certain foods might lead to urges to binge. You may even be concerned if you choose healthy foods or turn down unhealthy foods because you want to make sure you’re not depriving yourself. You may feel uneasy about what you see other people eating or not eating, and you may think you simply don’t know when to say yes to food and when to say no.
Added to that, you’ve likely heard a lot of advice about how you should be eating in order to recover from binge eating. There are many different philosophies out there from recovery advocates, and those philosophies don’t always agree. For example, some say that you need to eliminate sugar or other “addicting” foods to recover, and some say you must learn to eat those very same foods in moderation in order to truly recover. The reality is that there is no one right way to eat, but if you’ve spent any amount of time believing in one philosophy, it can be difficult to let it go. You may find yourself questioning if you should be eating completely intuitively, or if you should be measuring your food (or counting your servings or calories) to make sure that you’re getting enough, or if you should be avoiding any sort of measurement or calorie counting. You may question whether you should have a more structured meal plan or eat in a more flexible way, or if you should allow all types of foods, or avoid some specific foods while you get the binge eating habit under control.
Not only do you have this confusion about normal eating, but you also have the reality of dealing with the urges to binge and breaking the binge eating habit itself. (If you are new here, you can get started with breaking the habit by downloading my free PDF, “The Brain over Binge Basics”).
In times of confusion, a very common pattern is for the I don’t know how to eat thoughts to lead to thoughts that say I can’t possibly figure out how to eat, to lead to thoughts that say well, I might as well binge. It’s as if that primitive, habitual part of your brain automatically offers binge eating as a “solution” to not knowing what or how to eat. The binge-encouraging thoughts basically tell you to give up on even trying to determine how to eat and to instead just eat anything and everything. This is a common lower-brain tactic—using a circumstance surrounding food, or a circumstance in your life to rationalize bingeing. My goal is to help you stop believing that there is ever a reason to binge. I know that when you are not experiencing a desire to binge, you can look at this rationalization and see that it simply makes no sense to binge in response to feeling like you don’t know how to eat.
If there is one thing you do know about eating—without any doubt—it’s that binge eating is not how to eat.
Even if you genuinely feel confused about your food choices, it’s very powerful to realize that there is zero confusion surrounding binge eating—it is extremely harmful to you, and any thought that says it “makes sense” to binge because you don’t know exactly how to eat is absolutely false. You know that a binge is not a good food decision, so start there, and then any food decision you make will be a step in the right direction.
How to Eliminate the I Don’t Know How to Eat Thoughts
Now let’s move on to helping you learn to make food decisions and eliminate the I don’t know thoughts around food. I want you to take a step back and look at food decisions from a bigger picture perspective and realize that it’s a modern thing to have confusion about what or how to eat. In the ancient past, it was simply about what was available, and a lot of times it was simply about survival. Still today, if your situation was completely different—for example if you lived somewhere else or if a natural disaster happened—and food was not plentiful, it would also be about availability and survival.
I mentioned this in Brain over Binge, but as an example from my own life, I think back to going home to the New Orleans area after hurricane Katrina in 2005 to help my family, and food was not readily available, as there were no functioning grocery stores or restaurants for many miles. There were some wonderful volunteers and organizations that provided free meals, and in this situation, there were no food decisions to be made. We ate what we were so graciously provided. You may be able to find related examples in your own life, when there were simply no choices, and when there wasn’t any self-doubt about food. I think it’s helpful to remember that you have that ability inside of yourself to eat without confusion. It may only come out in certain situations, but it is there. The problem is that all of the food options available in your life today and all of the advice that you’ve heard over time is getting in the way of this ability to simply eat.
I’m not saying that plentiful choices are to blame, or that the solution is to avoid giving yourself options. I believe the solution is in your own thinking. You can have many choices, and still have a mindset that does not promote self-doubt and confusion. You can learn to make decisions and move on, for example, like when you were a child—think back to when you were outside playing and you got hungry and therefore came inside to eat. You likely just picked out something quickly, ate to satisfy your hunger (and enjoyed the food), and then got back to playing without any overthinking whatsoever.
I realize that, as a child, you may not have always made great choices about what to eat. Kids tend to be very pleasure-seeking, and it may have been the cookies that were most appealing to you. Your choices as an adult will be different of course, but you can still approach those choices with the same certainty and confidence, and then you can get back to living afterward. The difference between you now and the child in my example is that you started having I don’t know thoughts. Even if you can’t relate to this example and you think there was never a time in your life when you had the inherent ability to make food decisions, I want you to think about the multitude of other decisions that you’re able to make in your life that don’t have anything to do with food. You make decisions at work, in your education, about your kids, your relationships, your home, and even about mundane everyday choices that come with functioning in the world. Even if you need some practice in the area of food decisions, you can learn from your ability to choose in other parts of your life.
When you start to hear those I don’t know thoughts, I want you to just acknowledge them; but tell yourself that you’re going to make a decision anyway. Also remind yourself that any decision you make is much better than deciding to binge, and any decision is also better than staying stuck in indecision. You basically want to start exercising your decision-making muscle, even if it feels weak right now. Gently challenge yourself to choose what you are going to eat, fully acknowledging that there is no “right” choice, and that you’re simply doing the best you can in the moment. Tell yourself that at your next meal or snack, you may choose differently, and that’s okay. Tell yourself that this is just one food decision of countless food decisions that you’ll make throughout your life and that it does not have to be perfect. Aim for decisions that feel good enough. Tell yourself that you’re simply going to choose, you’re going to eat, and then you’re going to move on.
This does not mean you’ll just be choosing on a whim all of the time, although you certainly can. I know you’re an intelligent person who knows a lot about yourself and who also knows a lot about nutrition. You can take that into account, and also consider the situation when making a choice. For example, you may make some food decisions simply for convenience because that’s what you need in your life at that time, and that’s okay. That may mean you’ll be eating less-healthy foods in those moments, but you have other priorities in your life, and there is no need to feel guilty about that. At other times, you may decide to spend the extra time or money to give yourself more nourishing foods, because that’s what you feel is best at that point, and that’s okay too.
As you make decisions that feel good enough, you can get feedback from your body, and you can make adjustments over time—without all of the self-doubt. If you like your reasons for your food decisions, that’s all that matters. When you know there is not some “ideal” way to eat that’s out there somewhere, it’s easier to deal with the daily reality of making everyday choices. Your choices teach you things that you can use to improve your decision-making abilities in the future. In other words, you learn from every decision that you make.
After you make any decision about food, and eat the food, it’s helpful to redirect your focus onto something else in your life. Think again about the child who gets back to playing after stopping to refuel. Redirecting helps train your brain to see that eating is just eating, and it does not have to consume so much of your brain space. The more you practice deciding imperfectly, and the more you stop giving attention to the thoughts that say you don’t know, the more confident you will become at choosing the foods, and the amounts, and the eating times that feel right for you. Then, those I don’t know thoughts can simply fade away.
You can find a deeper discussion of this topic in the Brain over Binge course, in the Q&A track titled “I feel like I don’t know how to eat.” The course is only $18.99 per month (cancel anytime) and includes over 90 Q&A tracks, 8 extensive lessons, worksheets, and other resources.