RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
How to Stop Food Obsession
KATHERINE KIMBER, Registered Dietitian
April 17th 2019
Obsessing about food is all too common. It’s often seen as part and parcel of being a human being. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. In this article I am going to cover; what food obsession is, how it comes about, and how to stop food obsession.
What is food obsession?
Food obsession can be:
- Always thinking about, talking about and planning your next meal
- Only allowing yourself to eat certain foods and labelling them “good” and “bad”
- Not being able to concentrate on tasks if you know the “bad” foods are in the house
- Using “bad” foods as a reward if you’ve been “good”
- Feeling anxious if you’re not in control of your meals (e.g. at a restaurant or a dinner party)
- Not enjoying social occasions if there are “bad” foods present
- Declining those social occasions in the future, because of the stress of not knowing what you can eat.
You might identify with one, some or all of these. This can feel debilitating and wreak havoc on trying to have a social life!
So where does food obsession come from?
Food obsession can occur if we have rigid rules around our eating, whether these are self-inflicted rules that we’ve picked up over the years, or from an external source (e.g. a diet) (1).
Restriction can be physical or emotional.
- Physical restriction: when the food is “forbidden/not allowed” and you physically are told to not eat it (by yourself or others). E.g. no lunch before 12 ‘clock, no carbs after x time, a points, calorie or meal limit.
- Psychological restriction: when certain foods are labelled as “naughty” or “bad” and we carry guilt and anxiety for wanting to eat them, or actually eating them.
If you’re in the latter, chances are that diet culture has taught you to label foods as “good” and “bad”. This is where we feel “good” for eating a salad, and “bad” for eating a cookie. Placing a moralistic value on foods can interfere with our relationship to food in a negative way.
What happens when we restrict as a result of these food rules?
More often than not, food restriction leads to deprivation which leads to binge eating (2). Before you know it, you’re in the continuous restrict/binge cycle that looks like…
The food rules which make us restrict mean we become totally obsessed with that food. This food obsession can cause a bucket load of different emotions too.
Food obsession affects our mood and our relationships. It can affect our energy levels and desire to exercise. It can cause tainted memories of special occasions because you weren’t able to truly enjoy yourself because the food that was present controlled you. It is time consuming. It can make you feel alone, lost and helpless.
It can make you feel as though there is No. End. In. Sight.
This is no way to live.
So how can we stop food obsession?
Eat the “bad/forbidden” foods, and stop placing a moral value on them. No single food is “good”, “bad” or going to make you “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
It’s time to unlearn the food rules that have dictated which foods are “good” and “bad”, so that you can finally enjoy all foods in the that makes you feel good. This sounds scary, I know. The biggest fear is that we will just eat ‘junk food’ all the time if we eat our ‘forbidden food’. Whilst it may feel that is the case in the short term, this dissipates as time moves on. This process is called habituation (3) – it’s a scientifically proven thing!
I am going to use a non-food example to explain habituation. Imagine buying a new top that you love. When you first wear it, it feels exciting! Maybe you even wear it more than normal at first, however, after time it heads into the draw with all of your other clothes. It still feels nice to wear at times, but you’re not obsessed with it like you were at first. The same happens with food. When we allow it in, we get used to it and whilst it may still taste good, it becomes less exciting.
Let’s look at an example…
Say chocolate is your “forbidden” or “bad” food that you feel obsessed with. You need to be specific about the brand, type and flavour of chocolate. Because if you’re introducing chocolate buttons, chocolate biscuits, chocolate toffees, chocolate icing all at once it will take you 4 x as long to become habitualised to it. Be specific about the brand a flavour!
Next, plan out when you would like to practice eating it whilst giving that chocolate your undivided attention. Perhaps at a time when you’re not too vulnerable (I.e. stressed, tired or hungry). 30-60 minutes after a meal is a good time. Practice eating that food paying attention with all the senses. As an intuitive eating coach, this is where I guide my clients through a mindful eating exercise. It’s amazing to hear what flavours, textures, smells and emotions people notice when they pay attention. Eating mindfully and without judgement allows my clients to identify firstly, whether they actually like the food, and secondly, how much of that food is necessary for them to find the point of satisfaction.
Stopping food obsession can take time, but it’s possible when we stop restricting ourselves. It takes time to feel comfortable allowing “forbidden” foods back into our life – particularly if we’ve been a victim of diet culture for many years. It’s not something that has to be perfect or done all at once. It is a process to help you realise that you can trust your body and realise that food doesn’t have to control you. Once you stop restricting, the food obsession will diminish and you can start to enjoy all the fun things in life again.
- Polivy, J. (1996). Psychological Consequences of Food Restriction. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 96(6), 589-592. doi:10.1016/s0002-8223(96)00161-7
- Derenne, J. L., & Beresin, E. V. (2006). Body image, media, and eating disorders. Academic Psychiatry, 30(3), 257-261. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.libraryproxy.griffith.edu.au/article/10.1176%2Fappi.ap.30.3.257
- Epstein, L. H., Temple, J. L., Roemmich, J. N., & Bouton, M. E. (2009). Habituation as a determinant of human food intake. Psychological Review, 116(2), 384-407. doi:10.1037/a0015074
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