Our culture is obsessed with food. The taste of food. The quantity of food. When we invite guests into our homes, we offer food. Most guests even expect food! Companies promote team building with ‘pig out’ days. You can buy food anywhere and everywhere. There’s food when you go to church, the bank, for an oil change, and even at most gyms. How can you not think about food?
Having suffered through seasons of obsessive thoughts and disordered eating behaviors, I know what it is like to think about food nonstop. As a health and fitness professional – I have tested every diet and meal plan I have ever asked a client to use. Restrictive diets (such as no carb) elicited the most time spent thinking about food – I was ALWAYS hungry! Periods of depression also elicited food thoughts – for food was my quick and easy comfort.
The media’s role
The average person watches 5 hours of television a day – bombarded by food advertising (sad!). Approximately 40-50% of television commercials are for food products, or 10 to 15 commercials every hour. 90% of these are for junk foods (Kaiser Family Foundation). We are exposed to 50 to 75 food commercials each and every day! And we cannot point the finger at just one group. Advertising comes from all levels in the food chain – issued by manufacturers individually or as a group, by a marketing board representing a generic product, and by wholesalers, retailers, and distributors. (Unfortunately, you rarely see a commercial for real food).
Further, most food advertising is targeted at women, the main buyers of food in the household. As children are recognized as important persuaders, they are also targeted. Food advertising does reflect changing food tastes, diet, and dietary habits. The extent of the references to nutrition, health claims, and weight loss has increased in recent decades. Research has indicated that there was an increase in references to health and weight loss in advertisements for hot and cold cereals, bread and cake mixes, frozen and pre-prepared entrees, peanut butter, canned and instant dry soup, and carbonated beverages. Regardless of the product – what is the obsession? More and more products are supposedly better for you – more protein, more fiber, and simply more to think about!
Your relationship with food
It is normal to think about food, but excessive thoughts could indicate a problem. How much time do you spend thinking about food and weight? Reiff and Reiff (1998) found that
- Individuals with a normal or healthy relationship with food thought about food 10-20% of the time.
- Individuals who were dieting or with disturbed eating reported thinking about food 20-65% of the time.
- Individuals with a clinically diagnosed eating disorder reported thinking about food 70-110% of the time! How can you think about food more than 100% of the time? You dream about it – – –
Talking about and thinking about food and weight has become an accepted part of our culture. We surround ourselves with food. Being social = having food. I would go as far as to say that we love ourselves with food. What does that then mean about our culture’s relationship with food? In any eating disorder treatment program normal and accepted table conversations are taught. Inappropriate topics, such as those focused on food and weight, are redirected and not allowed. Further, lingering around the table or kitchen is not allowed.
We have become so focused on weight that we completely forget about health and the fact that health and weight are not synonymous – you do not have to be thin to be healthy. When you allow yourself to become overly hungry, you are setting yourself up for a binge later. When you are hungry, you think about food because you want the feeling to dissipate. The marketing and advertising also has us so confused about what is good for us – or better for us than anything else is – that we are forced to think before making what should be a simple decision (e.g., real food).
In addition, being healthy does not mean that you necessarily have a healthy relationship with food. I am recovered from a season of nearly 3 years of an unhealthy relationship with food – all the while a healthy individual. A healthy relationship with food is one that includes balance, variety, and moderation. It allows freedom and flexibility with your food choices. It honors your hunger and fullness cues – you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. No anxiety, stress, or attention focused on food or your body.
Strategies to thought reduction
- Eat often. One key to avoid thinking about food is to avoid hunger. By eating every 2-3 hours, you maintain healthy balances and you are less likely to think about food, what or when you will eat next, etc.
- Planning. The best strategy is to have a plan. Use Sundays to plan out your meals and snacks for the week. If you can, prepare as many as possible. This reduces the frequency of thoughts by eliminating questions like “what will I eat?”
- Rules and guidelines. I thrive on rules. You may thrive on having guidelines – which can be perceived as being more flexible. For example, I will not go to the grocery store for only one item. And I keep all food behind a door (see#6).
- Control your senses of taste and smell. The aroma of food can trigger a powerful urge to eat – even if you are not hungry. Pop a mint, hard candy, or cough drop into your mouth. It will overwhelm your taste buds and blot out other scents, ending the food craving almost immediately.
- Everything in moderation. What do you crave? A healthy relationship with food means that nothing is off limits. Telling yourself that you cannot eat something just increases thoughts about it. I love ice cream – so I allow myself a small amounts of ice cream on a semi-regular basis.
- Are you hungry or bored? Individuals tend to gain the most weight when they have the least amount to do. So, when you are tempted to munch, replace the boredom-induced food thoughts and mindless munching with a purposeful activity such as running an errand or calling a friend.
- Keep food out of sight. Food kept on the counter in a clear glass jar gets eaten quickly – – – that same food stored in the pantry lasts much longer. Likewise, foods placed at eye level in the front of the fridge will seem to call your name—so put your fresh produce there!
If you are dieting and you cannot stop thinking about food, then it is not the right diet for you. (Not that I encourage dieting at all.) If thoughts of food are disrupting your life – then maybe it is time that we chat!
Reiff, D. & Reiff, K . (1998) Time Spent Thinking About Food, Healthy Weight Journal; p. 84.