Why Am I Always Thinking About Food? How to Overcome Food Obsession

how to stop thinking about food all the time

Did you know the human body is wired to become obsessed with food when you restrict your diet? Furthermore, restrictive dieting also plays against your psychology. This means that after periods of “eating well” and/or losing weight, you’re almost guaranteed to feel like you’re always thinking about food.

Food obsession is an isolating experience, where many of us feel like we’re the only ones thinking about food 24/7 — and it makes us feel broken and demoralized. However, the truth is that many people struggle with food obsession because many people are trying to lose weight through restrictive dieting.

Clinical studies show that dieting increases your preoccupation with food, and it increases your appetite for high-calorie foods, which just adds to the pile of reasons why you’re always thinking about food. You’ll find plenty more evidence-based reasons why it’s easy to become obsessed with food — along with tips to stop thinking about food all the time.

This is the home of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness: an approach to stopping compulsive eating rooted in psychology and spirituality. With 8 years of experience as a medical writer and 6 years of coaching under my belt, you’ll see why I am so passionate about focusing on the psychology behind overeating instead of restrictive dieting.

Why Am I Always Thinking About Food? Factors to Consider

Although the psychology of eating plays a strong role in our behavior around food – including overthinking and overplanning our food choices – biology also plays a strong role. No matter how much you finesse your psychology, nothing works if you aren’t actually eating enough. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.

If you feel like you’re always thinking about food, here are some compelling factors to consider:

1. Eating Is Partially Motivated by Hormones

thoughts that motivate you to eat are influenced by various hormones

Constant thoughts about food are often influenced by hunger and satiety, which are controlled by complex hormonal signals. Hormones such as ghrelinleptin, and insulin work together to regulate your feelings of hunger and fullness.

Ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone,” signals your brain that it’s time to eat. After eating, your fat cells produce leptin, which tells your brain that you’re full and should stop eating. (This is one of the many positive benefits of fat, by the way.)

When the hormones that regulate hunger and fullness become disturbed — through lack of sleep or high stress, for example — it can lead to increased thoughts about food.[1] This is just one of many possible answers to the loaded question, why am I always thinking about food? Now, let’s dig even deeper.

2. Weight Loss Ironically Increases Thoughts About Food

dieting increases thoughts about food to motivate weight regain after weight loss

An enormous body of clinical evidence shows that eating less than your body needs (i.e. restrictive dieting) leads to hormone changes that motivate eating.[2], [3], [4] Specifically, when you don’t eat enough, your body produces more ghrelin and less leptin to motivate you to eat.

When you attempt to exert willpower to overcome the urge to eat because you’re trying to lose weight, your body ramps up these biological reactions even more. Your body prefers to stay at a specific set point weight, and attempting to lose weight only triggers biological reactions that encourage weight regain.[5], [6]

When you diet, your body essentially rebels against weight loss by motivating you to eat — and persistent thoughts about food are a byproduct of this biological mechanism. Dieting increases your appetite and increases your thoughts about food, especially when you resist your hunger. If you’re always thinking about food, consider how much — or how little — you’re eating.

3. We Are Wired to Think About Delicious (“Hyperpalatable”) Foods More Often

humans are wired to crave foods high in fat, carbs, sugar, & salt — especially while dieting

“Hyperpalatable foods” include those high in fat, carbs, salt, or sugar. Think: fast food, “junk food,” and delicious treats like chips, cookies, and donuts. If you feel like you’re always thinking about food, and you struggle particularly with hyperpalatable foods, it could be both biological and psychological.

First, within the brain there is an intricate network of neurotransmitters that reinforce positive behaviors – like eating – by associating them with feelings of pleasure. The central player in the reward system is dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.[7]

When you eat delicious and hyperpalatable foods, the brain releases dopamine and triggers feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Many of us are familiar with this pattern when we “eat for pleasure.”

The dopamine hit from eating hyperpalatable foods like cookies and chips reinforces the behavior and encourages you to repeat it in the future. This is the idea behind “food addiction,” which some clinical studies support and others refute.[8], [9], [10]

4. Regardless of Food Addiction, We Are Wired to Crave the Foods We Resist

Regardless of whether or not food is actually addicting (I will let you decide for yourself), I think it’s important not to resign yourself as a victim to the biology of hyperpalatable foods. Even if you feel like you don’t have enough willpower to resist deliciously tempting foods, you probably do!

Here’s my favorite YouTube video where I explain why I think you have more than enough willpower to resist food “just” because it tastes good:

I firmly believe the average person can resist eating without hunger in the presence of hyperpalatable foods when there are no other factors at play. However, when there are unresolved emotions floating around, that’s what makes eating feel compulsive.

Furthermore, if you’re actively trying to lose weight, you’re probably resisting and restricting hyperpalatable foods, which only makes you think about food more. Plenty of clinical studies have found that we think about food more often when we place certain foods off-limits.[11], [12], [13]

If you’re always thinking about food, take a look at your food rules. When you don’t allow yourself to have cookies, you psychologically want it more — and when you’re actively dieting, you biologically want the cookies more.

You’re not broken if you’re always thinking about food! You are wired to crave the foods you don’t let yourself have.

How to Overcome Food Obsession & Constant Thoughts About Food

If resisting food is what causes obsessive thoughts about food, does that mean that not resisting food is the cure? For most people, just the thought of letting go of the food rules can trigger fears of uncontrollable eating and weight gain.

But if obsessive thoughts about food increase the likelihood of binge eating, our eating feels out of control anyways.[14] Even when we diet, we end up losing weight only to gain it back, and we feel demoralized and frustrated with ourselves. Take a moment to seriously consider what would happen if you cut the restrict-binge cycle off at its source…

Here are some strategies to heal your relationship with food and get food off your mind:

Stop Dieting — It Ironically Leads to Eating Less

what happens when you cut the restrict-binge cycle off at its source?

If you feel like you’re always thinking about food, it’s safe to assume that you’re either trying to eat less (dieting) or trying to control your eating. Dieting and food rules create a false sense of control, though. Plus, we just presented abundant clinical evidence linking dieting with increased cravings and regaining any weight lost (“weight cycling”).

However, I know how scary it can feel to give up the food rules because it seems like a recipe for weight gain. To help you cope with this fear, consider the concept of “eating around.” This involves the pattern where:

  • You put “bad foods” like donuts off-limits, which increases your thoughts and cravings for them.
  • To stop yourself from eating the donut you seek other “good foods” to satisfy your hunger, except nothing hits the spot, so you continue to graze the kitchen and eat more and more “good foods” like a chicken salad, then a handful of almonds, then hummus with pita chips… a lot of hummus and pita chips.
  • Eventually, it’s midnight and you’re not hungry but you’re still craving that donut and now you just can’t stand it anymore, so you end up eating the donut on top of everything else.

This is the vicious cycle of “eating around” — closely tied to the restrict-binge cycle. Now, imagine how much less food you’d eat if you just had the donut you were craving to begin with.

Make Sure You’re Eating Enough

stop trying to eat 1,200 calories in a day — the energy requirement of a two-year-old!

Ensuring that you’re consuming enough food throughout the day is crucial for stopping obsessive thoughts about food. Research clearly shows that eating too little increases thoughts about food.[15]

Most people who are trying to lose weight aren’t eating enough. To worsen the problem, many of us have been doing this for so long that it creates a “new normal” around eating, where eating less feels like eating enough — except it isn’t.

Many of my coaching clients aren’t eating enough. Even though I am not a medical professional, some of my clients are eating less than 1,200 calories in a day(!), which is barely enough for a 2-year-old.[16]

Unfortunately, fitness magazines promoting weight loss “hacks” have normalized eating 1,200 calories a day. But this is bad advice at best and a slippery slope into disordered eating at worst. The science is clear: limiting calorie intake doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss.[17], [18]

Luckily, upon hearing someone else say ‘maybe you should eat more,’ many of my clients do! To my delight, many of them also report experiencing less cravings at night and not thinking about food as much. They witness first-hand how eating enough food reduces obsessive thoughts about food.

Avoid Diets That Cut Out a Specific Macronutrient

to stop thinking about food all the time you have to stop dieting

Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Diets that eliminate entire macronutrients – like the ketogenic diet that dramatically restricts carbs – are often unsustainable. Not only do they usually lead to eating less (which leads to increased cravings and thoughts about food) but it makes us want the restricted food even more.

Have you been there before? Trying your best to stick to a low-carb diet and then binge eating pizza, pasta, and peanut butter toast? I certainly have! We are biologically and psychologically predisposed to crave carbs when we put them off-limits.

If you want to stop feeling like you’re always thinking about food, stop making specific foods off-limits. Focus on listening to your body to inform what you eat, which is likely a healthy balance of macronutrients.

When you eat a meal with all three macronutrients — like a chicken salad with dressing or even a deep-dish pizza — you’re less likely to experience cravings and, as a result, you’ll think about food less and less.

You may even reach a point where you only think about food when you’re hungry, which is the ultimate goal.

Stop Overexercising for Weight Loss & Practice Intuitive Movement Instead

Can exercise help you stop thinking about food all the time? It depends, and I mean it really depends. On one hand, exercising too much can put excessive stress on your body, which increases those cravings and thoughts about food.[19]

On the other hand, exercise can help regulate levels of leptin, the ‘fullness hormone.’[20] With leptin contributing to appetite and cravings, one can argue that exercise can help manage your cravings and possibly help you stop thinking about food so much.

exercise too much and your body will resist weight loss

To help paint a clearer picture, balanced exercise usually works best; and the right amount of exercise looks different for everyone. To help guide you, try to focus on intuitive movement, which involves exercising in ways that feel good while taking into account factors like stress.

For a person with a high-stress job, intuitive movement may look like gentle yoga, pilates, or even a nap. Seriously, I’d argue that reducing chronic stress (which a much-needed nap can do) is better for the body than exercising on top of chronic stress.

Furthermore, the goal of intuitive movement is not weight loss, and this can be viewed as another good thing! Studies show that the more we exercise, the more the body adapts by slowing metabolism and reducing the impact of exercise on weight loss.[21]

Remember how I mentioned your “set point weight” earlier? This is another way that your body defends itself against weight loss. When we drop the goal of weight loss, we also drop the frustration we feel when things don’t pan out the way we want it to, which can help improve your relationship with food.

Working Towards Only Thinking About Food When You’re Hungry

I hope there is some validation to be found in knowing that many people think about food 24/7, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the unfortunate byproduct of a society that glamorizes weight loss through restrictive dieting. The good news is that, through better self-understanding, you can work towards a better relationship with food.

  1. Yau, Y H C, and M N Potenza. “Stress and eating behaviors.” Minerva endocrinologica 38,3 (2013): 255-67.
  2. Sumithran, Priya et al. “Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss.” The New England journal of medicine 365,17 (2011): 1597-604. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1105816
  3. Tschöp, M et al. “Ghrelin induces adiposity in rodents.” Nature 407,6806 (2000): 908-13. doi:10.1038/35038090
  4. Cameron, Jameason D et al. “Energy depletion by diet or aerobic exercise alone: impact of energy deficit modality on appetite parameters.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 103,4 (2016): 1008-16. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.115584
  5. Ganipisetti VM, Bollimunta P. Obesity and Set-Point Theory. [Updated 2023 Apr 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK592402/
  6. Sumithran, Priya, and Joseph Proietto. “The defence of body weight: a physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss.” Clinical science (London, England : 1979) 124,4 (2013): 231-41. doi:10.1042/CS20120223
  7. Blechert, Jens et al. “To eat or not to eat: Effects of food availability on reward system activity during food picture viewing.” Appetite 99 (2016): 254-261. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.01.006
  8. Volkow, Nora D et al. “Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity.” Trends in cognitive sciences 15,1 (2011): 37-46. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.11.001
  9. Davis, Caroline et al. “Food cravings, appetite, and snack-food consumption in response to a psychomotor stimulant drug: the moderating effect of “food-addiction”.” Frontiers in psychology 5 403. 8 May. 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00403
  10. Westwater, Margaret L et al. “Sugar addiction: the state of the science.” European journal of nutrition 55,Suppl 2 (2016): 55-69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6
  11. Mann, T, and A Ward. “Forbidden fruit: does thinking about a prohibited food lead to its consumption?.” The International journal of eating disorders 29,3 (2001): 319-27. doi:10.1002/eat.1025
  12. Richard, Anna et al. “Effects of Chocolate Deprivation on Implicit and Explicit Evaluation of Chocolate in High and Low Trait Chocolate Cravers.” Frontiers in psychology 8 1591. 12 Sep. 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01591
  13. Meule, Adrian. “The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation.” Current nutrition reports 9,3 (2020): 251-257. doi:10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0
  14. Masheb, R M, and C M Grilo. “On the relation of attempting to lose weight, restraint, and binge eating in outpatients with binge eating disorder.” Obesity research 8,9 (2000): 638-45. doi:10.1038/oby.2000.82
  15. Dulloo, Abdul G. “Physiology of weight regain: Lessons from the classic Minnesota Starvation Experiment on human body composition regulation.” Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 22 Suppl 2 (2021): e13189. doi:10.1111/obr.13189
  16. Faizan U, Rouster AS. Nutrition and Hydration Requirements In Children and Adults. [Updated 2023 Aug 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562207/
  17. Lowe, Michael R et al. “Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain.” Frontiers in psychology 4 577. 2 Sep. 2013, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577
  18. Maclean, Paul S et al. “Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain.” American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology 301,3 (2011): R581-600. doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010
  19. Yau, Y H C, and M N Potenza. “Stress and eating behaviors.” Minerva endocrinologica 38,3 (2013): 255-67.
  20. Bouassida, Anissa et al. “Leptin, its implication in physical exercise and training: a short review.” Journal of sports science & medicine 5,2 172-81. 1 Jun. 2006
  21. Pontzer, Herman et al. “Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans.” Current biology : CB 26,3 (2016): 410-7. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.046

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