Is Your Diet Causing Intrusive Food Thoughts?

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Are you preoccupied with thoughts of food? Restriction may be the cause.

Sometimes in my practice I see individuals who are subsyndromal for eating disorders, meaning they don’t meet full criteria for an eating disorder, but report an intense preoccupation with food that interferes with other activities. For example, I saw a client who reported that thoughts about food kept her from being able to concentrate during meetings. I suspect that there are many of these people out there; the majority may not even seek help. 

What’s going on here?

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, mammals have five basic needs for survival:  sleep, water, air, warmth, and food.  If any one of these basic needs is not met, the mammal will eventually die. 

These needs may be temporarily suppressed, but over time, when any one of these needs is not met, there is an increased drive to meet that need. The longer a need goes unmet, the harder it becomes to resist satisfying the need, and several things predictably happen:  

  1. one’s attention becomes increasingly focused on meeting the need;
  2. it becomes hard to concentrate on anything else;
  3. a powerful craving to meet the need is experienced;
  4. one becomes increasingly irritable and unhappy; and
  5. when the need is finally met, a larger than normal amount is needed to make up for the deprivation.

Consider what happens when you are sleep-deprived. If you stay up very late for several nights in a row, by the end of the week, you probably are irritable, have trouble concentrating, and when you finally do sleep, you sleep longer than on the typical night.

To demonstrate how this relates to food and dieting, Kathy Kater, LICSW, author of Healthy Bodies:  Teaching Kids What They Need to Know, a health curriculum, provides a lesson plan in which she encourages students to try an “air diet.” The students are given a drinking straw and asked to breathe in and out through the straw, plugging their noses, while listening to a story that is a minute or so long. Typically the students find it hard to concentrate on the story as the air restriction begins. They become increasingly preoccupied and anxious about getting sufficient air. When they are finally allowed to breathe normally, they gasp, gulp, and take in larger than usual amounts of air.

So how does this play out with food?

When a person diets, they usually become preoccupied with eating and start to experience intrusive thoughts about food, making it hard to concentrate on other things. This is the primal drive trying to ensure survival. When needs are met, preoccupations with that need subside. People on diets may also become increasingly irritable just like people who are sleep-deprived. 

In her book Secrets From the Eating Lab, Tracy Mann, Ph.D. reports that laboratory studies confirm that dieters show cognitive deficits. “Focusing extensively on food and eating (and sometimes also concerns about your weight) steals valuable attention from other activities, and the more preoccupying food thoughts dieters have, the more difficulty they experience thinking about other things and handling other cognitive tasks.” Thus, even though chronic dieters may not have a traditional eating disorder, this preoccupation with food may interfere with functioning in a significant way.

For these individuals I often recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN. Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on becoming attuned to the body's natural hunger signals rather than external guidelines. According to the book, many people who think they are eating carefully are actually dieting. Through 10 principles, the authors guide readers to give up dieting and honor their hunger. 

If you find that you are preoccupied with thoughts about food, you might want to complete food records for a week and then review them. Reflect on your eating patterns and experiment with increasing your intake by satisfying your hunger and see if your preoccupation changes.

If this does not improve with this intervention, please seek help from a professional. 


Kathy Kater, Healthy Bodies: Teaching Kids What They Need to Know

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