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.

A Letter to My Body

A Letter to My Body

Throughout the past year, my body has carried me through many life-changing experiences. She has carried me through grief, joy, connection, and has provided me the opportunity to grow in ways that I previously doubted possible. 

As I reflect on the ways that my body has shown up for me throughout it all, I am filled with comfort knowing that I can count on her to continue putting one foot in front of the other even when things feel unpredictable and vulnerable.  

The postpartum experience has given me the opportunity to find compassion for my body in ways that I had previously yet to experience. Writing a letter to my body allows me to process these physical changes while identifying both positive and neutral experiences within the adjustments. 

A letter to my postpartum body:

Thank you for showing up for me with a lens of connection and love as I navigate changing roles and challenge fears related to the unknown. 

Thank you to my soft belly for safely housing my babies and then providing a safe place for them to cuddle. 

My tired yet strong arms for holding and caring for the two of them even on days that I didn’t think I was capable. 

My powerful legs that supported me in moving forward through the hardships, grief, and joy. 

My weary eyes that fought to stay awake throughout the many sleepless nights.

My lips for the countless kisses, asks for support, and I love yous said. 

My mind for enduring all of the changes that have occurred, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

I am proud of you. Thank you for walking through these changes with hopefulness. Your adaptability brings me comfort and peace. 

I challenge you to engage in this exercise and allow neutrality to become a part of your life experiences, too. 

Joyful Movement

Joyful Movement

In our culture, the words “exercise” or “workout” often imply punishment, burning off calories to meet metrics on our smart watches. I prefer the word movement. Christy Harrison, journalist, registered dietitian, and certified intuitive eating counselor, describes movement as “intuitive, flexible, and unrelated to diet culture.” Those in eating disorder recovery often wonder how movement can be a part of their lives again when it has historically been used as numbing, compensation, or punishment. If you are currently struggling with an eating disorder, your body needs time to rest, heal, and recover. Taking a break from movement is often necessary. As you learn to better nourish and fuel your body, you can reclaim a new role for movement in your life. 

My relationship with movement has shifted significantly over the past five years. Growing up playing competitive soccer influenced the way I viewed movement and its purpose in my life. In my younger years, I was not thinking about what my body looked like as I ran, tackled, passed, and shot. Competing in matches and practicing with my best friends was invigorating. On the field, I felt truly embodied, defined by Dr. Hillary McBride in her book The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living as “to be present to yourself and your experiences from the inside out.” 

As I matured, strength and conditioning training was for the sole purpose of enhancing performance; we were always taught we could push beyond the limitations of our bodies to achieve various metrics required to compete against potential opponents. In some ways, this focus on performance helped me cultivate an appreciation for my body and all she did for me. However, in the process, I became disconnected from my body, always dissatisfied with my progress and perceived weaknesses when I did not measure up.

When I stopped playing soccer after a devastating ACL injury, I wondered what purpose movement now played in my life if I was no longer training to compete at the collegiate level. With diet culture on the forefront of my mind, it was difficult to think of movement as anything other than modifying or shrinking my body. Over the years, a beautiful journey began in which I discovered my passions for hiking, yoga, rock climbing, and group classes. I reclaimed movement as joyful and connecting, energy-producing and stress-reducing!

As you reclaim the role of movement in your life, consider the following:

-How does movement promote connection with yourself and others?

-What types of movement do you find enjoyable? 

-What kinds of movement help you feel more present or embodied? What types of movement are depleting?

-How/when do you notice your body craving movement or rest?

-How can you re-invite your body to join you in movement?

What does ADHD have to do with Eating Concerns? Part 2

What does ADHD have to do with Eating Concerns? Part 2

The more we learn about ADHD and eating disorders, the more we are coming to understand that the incidence of ADHD is actually higher in the eating disorder population and is not just eating disorders “looking like” ADHD. Something is happening here that warrants further understanding and exploration of how we approach eating disorder treatment when this comorbidity is present. 

There are biological, cognitive, and behavioral patterns inherent in both that can influence the severity and longevity of the eating disorder, as well as the recovery trajectory. People with ADHD and eating disorders have differences in how their brains process rewards, often looking for dopamine hits that can come from eating disorder behaviors. Disturbance in body awareness as an associated feature interferes with the ability to feel hunger/satiety cues and feelings. Difficulties with decision-making, planning, as well as time-blindness and difficulty with transitions, make it harder to meal plan and nourish oneself consistently throughout the day. People with ADHD often seek certain types of food making it more difficult to eat a wide variety of food. These are just some of the many nuances that show up with clients who have both an eating disorder and ADHD. 

The treatment for ADHD is very clear in the literature. We know that medication is incredibly helpful above and beyond therapy and behavioral modifications alone. As I mentioned before, it gets messy when someone also has an eating disorder as many ADHD medications are known to suppress appetite. But instead of concluding that medicating ADHD for someone who also has an eating disorder is contraindicated, we need to explore the nuances in this as well. 

While ADHD medication may compromise hunger cues, the medication may also help to overcome other barriers to recovery. For example, the client may be better able to strategize and execute on their meal plan as they suddenly have the brain capacity to do so. ADHD medication can relieve some of the symptoms that the eating disorder worked to mitigate, such as dysphoria, distress, feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed. Clients may be better able to tolerate the distress inherent in eating disorder recovery with the help of medications that can calm their minds. 

I am not “that kind of doctor” that can assert medication for clients. I am the kind of doctor who advocates for treating all the presenting concerns our clients face. And the more we understand about ADHD and its relationship to eating disorders, we understand the critical importance of treating both illnesses. If we only treat the eating disorder and neglect ADHD, our clients will likely struggle more on the path to recovery and in their ability to sustain it. Besides this, we would be neglecting ongoing and treatable pain that were treated, which would bring immense relief, increased confidence, self-awareness, and continued motivation. 

We have a lot more to learn and understand about ADHD and eating disorders. And what we do know so far, calls us in the field to look closely at the nuances these presentations bring to treatment, and how we need to be flexible, mindful, and deliberate in how we help treat our clients to optimize their success.

What does ADHD have to do with Eating Concerns? Part 1

What does ADHD have to do with Eating Concerns? Part 1

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) seems to be the diagnostic soup de jour. We all heard about the Adderall shortages that started in late 2022 and still aren’t fully resolved now in 2024. Everyone is talking about ADHD and more and more people are getting diagnosed with it. Diagnoses are especially escalating among adults, with rates of adult diagnosis increasing four times faster than diagnostic rates for children. 

A lot of people are skeptical about this rise in diagnosis. Are smartphones making everyone develop ADHD? Is it the plastics? Is it our stressful lifestyles and chronic inflammation? Are there really that many more people with ADHD today? Or have there always been this many people with ADHD and we are now better at catching it with increased awareness and access to resources? 

Just as rates of ADHD increase, our field is continuing to grow in its own understanding of this diagnosis. As it relates to my interest in women’s issues, we know that females have historically been underdiagnosed for ADHD given the nuances of its presentation in females and female’s ability to compensate and mask symptoms. 

ADHD also has a unique and messy history with its association to eating disorders. When I started working in the field of eating disorders over a decade ago, I was implicitly and explicitly taught to be skeptical of clients who self-ascribed as having ADHD in addition to an eating disorder. I was taught that 1. Malnourished and starved brains present in similar ways to people who have ADHD, and 2. Our clients are incentivized to claim themselves to have ADHD so they can be prescribed a stimulant that would curb their appetite and further their weight loss goals. I was taught that when clients are re-nourished, their “ADHD symptoms” would resolve, confirming the above assertions. Our clients would then understand that their experiences with ADHD symptoms were really just manifestations of their eating disorder and they would feel the relief that comes with a nourished brain and be incentivized to stay in recovery. 

Join me next week for Part 2 as we discuss more about ADHD and eating disorders. 

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.

Finding Purpose Outside Your Appearance

Finding Purpose Outside Your Appearance

I recently saw the movie Mean Girls in theaters. As a body image and eating disorder therapist, I could not help but notice how the myriad of messages about appearance and unrealistic beauty standards influence the characters in the film. At one point in the movie, Cady Heron, the new girl, is desperately trying to fit in with the popular clique. She is gathered with the three coolest girls in school as they begin to pick apart their bodies, commenting on everything from their hips to their weight to their complexion. 

Cady grew up in Africa without the internet, living in the middle of the safari with just her mother. Homeschooled and spending most of her time in nature or studying, Cady was not socialized to hate her body. She is visibly shocked by this communal dislike that somehow feigns bonding. Cady wonders why these girls are being pitted against their bodies, their ultimate strength. As the girls stare at her, she awkwardly mutters, “I’m not sure what we’re doing but… me too. I’m ugly too.” 

Sometimes I fantasize about all we could accomplish if our focus was not consumed with food and our bodies. How much more energy would we have to connect with loved ones? What if we invested all that brain power in a hobby or passion? Even though you are confronted daily with messages about how your body should look, you are meant for so much more. You have people to connect with, memories to make, and new experiences to savor.

This month, Dr. Anna Packard and I invited our Embodied Body Acceptance group members to create a “mission statement” related to their life’s purpose and meaning. I invite you to reflect on your own mission statement. Consider the following questions: 

What is your unique purpose and how much does that pertain to what you look like? 

Where do you find passion and meaning in your life? 

What draws people to you that has nothing to do with your appearance? 

What do you want to be remembered for? 

What do you want others to know you believed in and stood for? 

One of my favorite writers, Rupi Kaur, shares her thoughts related to her body’s true purpose in Home Body: “I want to leave this place knowing I did something with my body other than trying to make it look perfect.” Consider your connections, your passions, and your purpose—outside of the shape and size of your body.

The Year of Self-Compassion Goals

The Year of Self-Compassion Goals

Maybe this is the year…

  • You make memories instead of resolutions
  • You count smiles instead of calories
  • You cut the sizes out of your clothes instead of cutting out sugar or bread
  • You sign up for more sleep instead of more fitness classes
  • You step into your own abundance instead of trying to shrink yourself in all possible ways
  • You practice self-compassion instead of shame
  • You move your body how and when you want to and not how and when you think you “should”
  • You get a new friend instead of a new PR
  • You find curiosity instead of judgment
  • You collect resiliency instead of counting failures
  • You find joy in the details instead of stress in the big picture
  • You find unconditional self-love instead of conditional expectation
  • You see your wholeness and strength instead of your brokenness 
  • You recognize your unconditional, unchanging worth instead of the hustling to prove your value to the world
  • You slow down instead of speeding up
  • You breathe into the unknown instead of trying to control all the outcomes
  • You scream for fury, rage, grief, and joy instead of holding it all in
  • You decide to “want to” instead of “have to”
  • You take things OFF your To Do List instead of chronically adding to it
  • You connect with yourself and others instead of metrics and milestones
  • You look back and celebrate how far you’ve come instead of looking ahead at how far you think you still have to go
  • You step into 2024 knowing you are complete, whole, beautiful, and loved, just as you are