Q: I feel like I think about food nearly 100% of the time that I’m awake. If I’m not eating, I think about what I will eat next and when I will eat it. I have a history of minor eating disorders and have overcome them, but the obsessive thinking about food has not gone away. Does it ever?
A: First and foremost, generally, if you are eating enough, you will not be obsessing about when the next time you get to eat is. I don’t just mean enough volume, I don’t just mean enough vegetables. I mean enough calories, vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, and carbohydrate. “Enough” is going to be different for everyone, but if you find your mind obsessing about food, I would bet my left arm it is because you are not eating enough. Could be in one of those categories, could be in all.
I say this with a lot of love and understanding. In the past, (and not only when I considered myself to be super eating disordered!) I have been very particular about what, when, and how much I “could” eat. Every time I ate outside of my plan I was furious with myself. I had made the rules, and when I broke them, I failed. The problem was, my rules weren’t reasonable in every circumstance. So where did they come from?
I think there are a lot of ideas about eating floating around out there. Some people insist three meals are best. Some people swear by six small meals. Carbohydrates are the devil. You need meat for protein. Chicken and steamed vegetables are just about the only acceptable meal, and if you are 100% satisfied with your body, you can have a sweet potato.
None of that works for me, because my body demands more than a template of non-specific, non-individualized rules. On average I eat medium meals for breakfast and lunch, have smaller snacks between lunch and dinner, eat a sizable dinner, and have a snack before bed. That’s eating six times a day, with all of the actual meals being more calories than those six-small-meals-a-day people suggest. I eat this way because when I’m only eating 300 calories at a time, I feel unsatisfied. I eat this way because if I eat too much at once, my stomach rebels (#IBS-problems) and if I feel overfull it triggers negative thought patterns (#kicking-the-ED’s-ass-but-still-remembering-problems) I eat this way because I exercise a lot, which makes me hungry, and when I am genuinely hungry, it is no longer in my nature to ignore it.
Holy shit, do most people seem to think the way that I eat is wrong. And guess what? I have tried to change this way of eating multiple times as a result. “You eat a snack before bed?!” I can practically hear women’s magazines saying. “Blasphemy! The quickest way to pack on pounds!” I have tried to eliminate snacking. I have added protein into my diet, with the goal of getting a gram for every pound of my body. I have tried to subtract protein almost entirely (80-10-10 failure in the houuuuuuuse) I have limited my carbs, I have felt fearful of fat, etc. etc. etc.
It took me a long time to accept that every single time I try to do these things I find my brain returning, again and again and again, to what I am going to eat and when. Food, food, food, food, food. All I can think about is food.
That is incredibly boring! I am a person with lots of hobbies and interests outside of meals, and I bet you are too. It is irresponsible to myself to erase that stuff in the name of restrictions that don’t work for me.
When I say all this, I don’t mean go eat McDonald’s just in the name of not restricting. I think that there is a real and insidious addictive quality to a lot of bullshit foods, and in most cases, abstaining from them is worth the effort. (High fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils are stupid and confusing to your body, its better to not invite them in). BUT. Beyond that, sate your hunger! Your hunger might be for food, it might be for mental stimulation, for connection, for creativity, etc. It is your duty to find out what you’re hungry for and go for it.
What if you tried this challenge:
You notice that you are obsessing about food, so you ask yourself if you are hungry. If the answer is yes, try eating a food that is both healthy for your body and exciting for your mind. If the answer is yes and you don’t want to eat, ask yourself why. Who told you that eating when you are hungry is wrong? Why do you believe it?
If you are obsessing over food and you ask yourself if you are hungry and the answer is truly and deeply a resounding no, well that’s worth exploring too. Oftentimes when I find my brain wandering over to food when I’m not hungry, it’s because something is up in my life that I feel uncomfortable thinking about or dealing with. Maybe I am insecure about my writing or I’m frustrated about some aspect of a friendship. It is much much easier for me to obsess over when I’ll eat the perfect dinner than to face the reality that my writing is very personal and on the Internet for anyone and everyone to read, or that I might be outgrowing some aspects of particular relationships. Maybe I have done something that I am ashamed of, and the anxiety around it is making me want a snack. That is really and truly a thing, especially for people who have had issues with food in the past. When we are obsessing over food when not actually hungry it is a barometer that indicates something else is up. Luckily, with a little extra awareness, you can turn that into an alarm that will make it so that you have to deal with your actual issues. I consider this more of a blessing than a curse.
Remember: You are completely worthy of nourishment.
I encourage you to eat enough calories, vitamins, minerals, fat, protein, and carbs, and also to address issues that may lead your mind toward food when you don’t actually want or need it. Once these things are taken care of, you will have more brain space to focus on other things. I promise!
Illustration by Karen Martinez