As a young teen, I remember reading articles in Seventeen Magazine and Teen People about girls that struggled with eating disorders. I scoffed at these articles, thinking, “psh, I LOVE food way too much to ever not eat it! That’s just crazy.”
Fast forward a couple years to when I was waist-deep in my eating disorder. What do you think I watched constantly on TV? The Food Network. I loved cooking for other people, and food was my constant obsession. The meticulous counting of every single calorie, and avoiding at all costs any food that I might not be able to accurately calculate. Food was simultaneously my best friend and worst enemy, and my world revolved around it.
Throughout the next five years of navigating recovery, I struggled to let go of the obsession. Restricting turned into overeating because of a desperate desire to never feel deprived again, to not give a crap about calorie count, and because of my body’s own rebellion against the past starvation.
My experience is hardly unique among people with eating disorders. And frankly, among people (especially women) in our culture in general.
Our society is both food-obsessed and diet-obsessed. How can we win?
Of course, there is no magic bullet for healing from an obsessive relationship with food — whether your actual behavior is overeating, restricting, over-exercising to compensate for eating, food rigidity, a full-on eating disorder, or some combination of these. Depending on how deep in you are, you may need professional help (whether it’s residential treatment, intensive outpatient, or just working with a therapist and dietitian) like I did in order to get healthy.
Or you may notice that your thoughts and behaviors are starting to concern you before they spiral too far out of control — and do some reading, self-help courses, work with a coach, and talk to friends about things you’re making an effort to work on. (Note that in either scenario, it’s not “going it alone”… because that tends to be woefully ineffective.)
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But in this article, I’ll give a brief overview of a few of the ideas and tips that most helped me to let go of the obsession with food.
First and foremost, STOP DIETING.
And by dieting, I mean any food restriction that’s not medically necessary, or limiting your caloric intake below what your body actually needs to maintain optimal functioning. If you’re not sure what that actually means for your body, consult with a dietitian — but basically, any promises of “rapid weight loss” or fad diets that cut out entire food groups = not good. If you’ve ever done these, I probably don’t have to tell you why they increase obsession with food.
When your body is deprived of calories or certain nutrients, it tries very hard to get you to listen to it… which might look like obsessive thinking! So, if you’re dieting and you want to stop obsessing about food, you have to start here. Both when I met clinical criteria for anorexia and when I had weight-restored but became a yoyo binge/restricter, restricting my food always led to obsession, which was so miserable that it was one of the main factors that drove me toward doing the hard work of recovery.
Keep track in your journal of when you’re having obsessive thoughts.
The next step is increasing awareness of your thinking. Until you’re aware, you have no choice to do anything different. This might sound painfully obvious, but more often than not, we become a slave to our thoughts, even if they’re thoughts we’ve had 1,000 times before that are nothing novel and have never once been helpful.
Just the act of tracking when throughout the day you notice you’re getting “hooked” by thoughts about food gives you valuable information and allows you to make a choice.
“Ok, so I’m doing it again… is letting these thoughts dictate what I choose to eat right now actually going to help me in the long run, or should I base my choices on acting in alignment with my core values?” Sure, it’s easier said than done, but isn’t everything? Until you develop greater in-the-moment awareness of when you get hooked by thoughts about food/body, you won’t be able to do anything different.
Ask yourself what else is really going on.
Once you have some practice noticing when you are hooked into obsessive thoughts, you can take the next step of getting curious about them. Often, there’s a good chance your anxiety about something else in your life is translating to a convenient obsession about something else: food! Take a minute to check in with yourself about what else you might be anxious or preoccupied about. It may not solve that problem in the moment (such is life), but it will help you see that the thoughts about food are actually a distraction and not the “real” issue at hand.
Act your way into right thinking, not the other way around.
This is one of my favorite recovery phrases because it is so true and so important. When you’re stuck in thoughts — surprise! — the answer is not MORE THOUGHTS. Trying to think our way out of thinking is one of the greatest traps that us humans fall into. We’re pretty good at solving external problems: we’ve created rapid air travel, instantaneous worldwide telecommunication, life-saving surgical procedures, you name it.
But when it comes to the “internal” stuff (thoughts, feelings, memories, etc.), our problem-solving philosophy tends to be pretty ineffective.
If I were to tell you to just start feeling really sad right now, could you do it? Chances are it would be pretty tough, because we can’t just turn our thoughts and feelings off and on at-will. Even if we really, really TRY! Similarly, we can’t just analyze our way into different thoughts.
What does work pretty well though is taking action. Sometimes if I’m in a crappy mood, no amount of thinking about it is going to help. But if I get up and walk to the end of my street and back, I have a chance to refresh and restart, and shift my attitude 20 degrees, which is often enough.
This is why I’m so obsessed with theories of human behavior and behavioral models of therapy like ACT and DBT. You can wish things were different ’til you’re blue in the face, but until you actually DO something different, you’ll keep getting the same results. So when you find yourself obsessing about food, rather than focusing on changing your thoughts, think of an action you could take in that moment that would be in alignment with your values. That might be calling a friend, taking a bath, hanging out with your pet, creating some art, or blasting your favorite power ballads playlist.