Is Your Diet Causing Intrusive Food Thoughts?

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Are you preoccupied with thoughts of food? You may not be eating enough. Yes, that's true! Even if you believe that you eat plenty, it may truly be that you are undereating.

It is not uncommon for eating disorder treatment professionals to 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, Alice reported that thoughts about food kept her from being able to concentrate during meetings at work. There are many such people out there who may not realize that they are not eating enough. 

What’s going on here?

The Five Basic Needs

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, all mammals have five basic needs for survival: sleep, water, air, warmth, and food. If any of these basic needs are 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, larger than the 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 a 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. 

However, contrary to much advice to dieters, dietary restriction is not a normal state for humans—or even sustainable.

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.”

People on a diet don't necessarily have an eating disorder, but they can still have a preoccupation with food that significantly interferes with functioning.

If this describes you and you are willing to explore an alternative approach, a good book to read is 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. Diet culture is so pervasive that many people have adopted rules about eating that prevent them from eating enough. Through 10 principles, the authors of Intuitive Eating guide readers to give up dieting and learn to 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 the preoccupation does not improve with this intervention, please seek help from a professional. 

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Kathy Kater, 2012. Healthy Bodies: Teaching Kids What They Need to Know. Body Image Health, North St. Paul, MN.

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS
 Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.