Can I Ever Stop Obsessing About Food?

Can I Ever Stop Obsessing About Food?

I feel like I’m thinking about food all the time. From the second I wake up, I’m stressed about what I ate yesterday, feeling guilty for how much I ate and the foods I chose. Food is always on my mind. If I’m not worrying about what I just ate, or what’s on my plate right now, I’m obsessing over the next meal. It feels like I’m thinking about food 100% of the time, and I don’t know how to not think this way. I feel like my head is buzzing with numbers–calories, weight, macros, everything–and I can’t concentrate on anything else.

If you relate to the thoughts above, you know how hard it can be to feel like you can’t stop thinking about food. The constant, obsessive thoughts, the never-ending stress and worry about food, the anxiety and guilt, can all feel so overwhelming. If you’re feeling like you can’t stop obsessing about food, please know that you can find relief. I won’t pretend like there’s some magical way to stop obsessing about food instantly, but there are some things that can help.

1: Eat enough, often enough

Preoccupation with food (worrying about food being available, thinking about food when not eating, thinking about future meals) is in part, a natural, biological consequence of being undernourished. Thinking about food can be a normal, short-term hunger cue that helps you know it’s time to eat. However, if you are chronically not eating enough food, or not eating consistently, this normal hunger cue can turn into persistent preoccupation or obsession about food. Whether you have an eating disorder or not, thinking about food all the time can be a sign that you aren’t eating consistently enough. Inconsistent nourishment, whether from an eating disorder, another illness, food insecurity, or another reason, can lead to obsessive thoughts about food. The good news is that if you begin to eat enough, often enough, you are likely to start to find that you think about food less often than you do when you are undereating or eating sporadically. There is no substitute or “hack” for bypassing the psychological consequences of undereating. Eating enough, often enough, is key to reducing obsessive thoughts about food.

2: Engage with other parts of your life

If you have been stuck in a pattern of anxiety or worry about eating, it can feel hard to focus on anything but food. Focusing on food may have been an escape, a coping mechanism, or a necessity in the past for many reasons. However, continuing to put your energy into worries about food eventually ends up making life feel pretty small. 

If you’ve noticed that most of your hobbies and interests are connected to food, exercise, or appearance, it might be time to intentionally start engaging with other interests and activities. Give yourself the chance to expand your priorities and experiences beyond the reaches of obsession about food. Doing so can literally change your brain! Neuroplasticity, or the ability for our brains to change their neural networks in response to new experiences and learning, is part of how you can find relief from obsession about food. The more your actions reinforce an obsession with food, the harder it will feel to think about anything else. BUT, the more your actions and experiences reinforce connection with priorities other than food and weight, the more your thoughts and emotions will shift away from food obsession, and toward greater balance.

3: Give it time

If you are working on doing the things I mentioned above (nourishing yourself adequately and consistently, and engaging with parts of your life that aren’t connected to food) and it still feels like you’re stuck obsessing over food, remember to give it time. Changing your habits and your brain takes repetition and time to solidify. Don’t give up! Stick with it, and gather support around you as you make these changes. Changing the patterns around disordered eating and food obsession can be a long road, but with consistency and support, you can find your way through.

In Defense of Emotional Eating

In Defense of Emotional Eating

The term “emotional eating” is often used with a negative connotation. Eating for emotional reasons, rather than to satisfy hunger, is usually talked about as something physically and emotionally unhealthy. Here’s my take: Emotional eating isn’t inherently unhealthy! 

Of course, “emotional eating” can sometimes be an ineffective form of coping with emotions or distress. Avoiding emotions through eating can be part of an unhelpful cycle. (Then again, so can avoiding emotions through NOT eating!) However, it makes sense for us to involve food in our experience of many emotions, pleasant and unpleasant!

Eating out of celebration can connect us to our culture, to family and loved ones, and to sensory delight. For me, homemade cherry pie is a food I eat exclusively for emotional reasons! It’s tradition in the family I grew up in to have cherry pie on birthdays and other special occasions, usually AFTER a big meal of Taiwanese dumplings shared together. I’m almost never hungry by the time we get out the cherry pie, so I guess that means I’m always “emotionally eating” when I eat cherry pie. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right! The delicious experience of filling my belly with dumplings, then savoring tart cherries and flaky pie crust is a big part of what makes those special days significant. This type of emotional eating is precious to me because it has been a tradition in my family since I was a child.

Eating for nostalgia, to remember a person, a place, or a tradition, can be beautiful and meaningful. Whenever I eat a fresh peach, whether I’m physically hungry or not, I cannot help but find myself “emotionally eating.” To me, the smell of ripening peaches instantaneously takes my mind back to the kitchen of the home where I grew up. The taste of fresh peaches is the taste of decades of Labor Days spent laughing with my siblings. A bowl of cut-up peaches set on the table is a love note from my mom or dad. For me, peaches are often a part of “emotional eating” that I deem as healthy for myself and my relationships.

Eating because we are feeling stressed or sad makes sense, and can be a helpful choice. Eating can be soothing to our bodies. From the very moment we are born, we are meant to find soothing and safety through eating. Eating is supposed to feel good! When approached intentionally, “emotional eating” can be a helpful tool for coping and self-care. For me, sometimes crunching my way through a bowl of cereal (especially Honey Bunches of Oats with almonds. IYKYK.) is part of what helps me soothe myself enough to face the stresses of another couple of hours of parenting little kids. I see these moments of “emotional eating” as an effective way for me to sit with and work through stress so I can move on with my day.

Food is fuel for our bodies, and it is also so much more. Eating for emotional reasons can add variety, meaning, comfort, and connection to our lives. There needs to be no shame in “emotional eating.” Emotional eating is a normal part of the human experience, sometimes in helpful ways, and sometimes in unhelpful ways. Of course, if eating for emotional reasons has become part of a cycle that is not adding to your well-being, you deserve to have support and help with breaking that cycle, and with learning more effective ways to cope. And even then, eating for emotional reasons can still play a healthy, helpful role in your life. Making room for “emotional eating” is, in many ways, an essential element of having a peaceful relationship with food because eating and emotion can never fully be separated. Food and emotion are inherently intertwined, sometimes in painful ways, but also in beautiful and meaningful ways.

Body Reflections

Body Reflections

If you struggle with body image, your relationship with the reflection of your body in the mirror might feel complicated. Maybe you find yourself spending too much time in front of the mirror, picking apart your reflection, and feeling upset about what you see. Or maybe you find yourself avoiding glimpses of your reflection, not wanting to see your body because you don’t feel good about it. Maybe you experience a mix of both. If your body’s reflection is a source of stress in your life, you aren’t alone–body image stress is something everyone experiences at least occasionally and something many experience chronically.

For today’s blog, I want to take the word “reflection” and use its other definition–not the one that means an image thrown back to you by the mirror. Reflection (noun): thought or consideration. The end of the year is a time when we naturally reflect–look back on and consider our experiences, thoughts, and emotions. If body image is a struggle for you, you might find it helpful to do some reflection on your relationship with your body beyond its reflection in the mirror. Here are a few questions that might help you reflect.

  • What were some meaningful experiences I had this year? How was my body a part of those experiences?
  • Where did I struggle in my relationship with my body this year?
  • Where did I grow in my relationship with my body this year?
  • How did my body support me this year? How did I support my body?
  • What were the sensations my body enjoyed this year? Think about experiences with each of your senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, smell.

Focusing on the reflection you see in the mirror can distract you from a deeper, more meaningful type of reflection. What you see in the mirror only tells you a small part of the story of your body and its experience, function, and meaning. Looking deeper–into your relationship with your body, into the experience of being alive in your body–yields so much more complexity and so much more meaning than looking in the mirror does. 

Your Best Might Not Always Be the Best

Your Best Might Not Always Be the Best

My clients know I use a LOT of metaphors in therapy. It’s just how I roll! Here is a metaphor that I’ve shared with a couple of clients lately that might resonate if you’re dealing with perfectionism.

Let’s pretend you’re driving a car. What if when you were driving, you felt like you always had to “do your best?” In some ways, “your best” might mean driving at maximum speed and power, engine revving at full capacity, and really showing everyone else on the road what your car can do. What if you felt like you had to push your car to do its “best” ALL the time?

If you were to drive this way in real life, of course, there would be some negative outcomes. Even if there were no traffic laws to pay attention to, constantly pushing your vehicle to perform at its “best” would actually do damage to the engine, the tires, the transmission, the brakes, etc. Helping your car perform well in the long run, and extending the life and utility of its engine, tires, etc. might actually mean driving at a capacity that is far below your car’s “best.” Sure, you might want to occasionally push your car to show off its full potential in certain situations, like if you were drag racing, trying to outrun a tsunami, or auditioning for a stunt driving role (please don’t do any of those things unless absolutely necessary), but for the most part, taking care of your car would mean driving fairly conservatively.

Even if you feel pressure to always “do your best,” running yourself at full capacity isn’t something you can do all the time, at least not without consequences. You might feel like you have to stay up all night to do “your best” on a project for school. You might feel the need to be extremely rigid about your exercise routine in order to do “your best” physically. You might feel like you have to say “yes” to every opportunity to help someone in order to be the “best” friend/child/sibling/partner you can be. Perfectionism might make you feel like it’s not ok to put in less than 100% effort ever, for anything, even if you’re feeling stressed or burned out.

Remind yourself that, like a car, you aren’t meant to run at full capacity all the time. In fact, most of the time, it’s more effective and sustainable to pace yourself, and conserve energy for the long road ahead. Life sometimes does happen in bursts when we need, and benefit from, using our full capacity. However, more often than not, going at a speed that lets you get things done AND take care of yourself will end up feeling more sustainable and satisfying than pushing yourself to do your absolute “best.”

My Body Is a Wonder, and So Is Yours

My Body Is a Wonder, and So Is Yours

Recently, I was watching my 9-month-old baby as he played on the floor. Laying on his back, he held his hands up in front of his face, staring at them intently. I watched him clasp and unclasp his hands, clap, stretch his tiny fingers, twist and turn his pudgy wrists, seeming captivated by the movement of his own little body.

What would it be like for each of us to notice our bodies with wonder and curiosity? What would change if we could see our bodies with fascination and awe, instead of with criticism and disdain?

There have been some monumental moments in my life in which I’ve felt profound wonder towards my body. Seeing my body change through pregnancy, witnessing its power through childbirth, and feeling it heal from significant injuries have all been experiences that have made me acknowledge how astounding my body is. There are also many, many everyday moments in which I can’t help but be fascinated by my body. Over the years, I’ve tried to develop a habit of paying more attention to my body as it does everyday things. As I’ve done so, I’ve connected with a truth about my body that grows more meaningful and deeply felt as time goes on: my body is a wonder. 

I find wonder in my body as I sit on the floor and stretch before bed. Each movement of my limbs is the result of the complex mechanics of muscles, tendons, and ligaments working together.

I find wonder in my body as my fingers type this blog post. My fingers tap the keyboard with rapid, reflexive, fine-tuned movements that I create consciously but that also feel automatic and intuitive. How many neural pathways in my brain are firing at once as my fingers type?

I find wonder in my body as I stare out the window. There are six extraocular muscles that surround each of my eyes and control their movement. Those muscles contract and relax automatically, letting my eyes move and change focus from the window pane in front of me to the tree across the street. I don’t tell my pupils when to dilate, but they do, responding seamlessly to changes in the light around me. As my pupils allow in light from the outside world, photoreceptor cells on my retina turn that light into electrical signals, which travel through my optic nerve and to my brain, where my brain creates and interprets images. And that, somehow, is how sight works. (I had to look all this up, by the way. https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/healthy-vision/how-eyes-work)

I am fascinated and amazed by my body! Even as she ages, and even with her weaknesses, she is a wonder. 

Not all moments in our bodies are filled with awe and amazement. Sometimes, having a body can be difficult, painful, frustrating, or embarrassing. Regardless, I believe there is healing to be found in acknowledging the truly amazing things our bodies–of all ages, sizes, and abilities–are constantly doing for us. Noticing the wonders your body is working can be a piece of finding greater peace in your relationship with your body.