how to stop thinking about food
  • May 16, 2024

How To Stop Thinking About Food

HELP! Why Can’t I Stop Thinking About Food? Are you somebody who spends their time researching recipes, planning meals and […]

HELP! Why Can’t I Stop Thinking About Food?

Are you somebody who spends their time researching recipes, planning meals and reading the menu before heading to restaurants?

Are you finding that your mind is constantly preoccupied with food related thoughts, making it hard to focus on anything else?

You may be so used to this that you think this is normal. 

Sure, thinking about food to a certain degree is normal. Planning meals for your family, packing your lunch for work is all part of being human and nourishing our bodies. 

But obsessing, ruminating, and having an inability to focus on anything else is an indicator that something is wrong, and that your relationship with food may be not the healthiest.

Mental hunger is valid, and it is important to understand how your relationship with food affects this.


What Is Mental Hunger?

Mental preoccupation with food, rumination and constant anticipation of your next meal are all signs that you are underfueling, and your body & brain are requiring more energy than you are giving it.

If you are coming from a period of not eating enough/restricting, your body is in survival mode. This deficit can also cause a reduced appetite, which can lead to not eating enough.

Thinking about food is a survival mechanism. It is a way for your body to tell you it needs more food, when your physical cues are lacking.

Mental hunger is not a technical term. It’s misunderstood by many. It is often not validated – as it may be difficult to identify the symptoms of emotional/mental hunger against the urges to binge eat. 

You may be seeking food as an emotional comfort. This is part of being human! It is important to still be compassionate to yourself, and learn to identify any triggers. 



What Are The Symptoms of Mental Hunger? 

Mental hunger may look like:

  • Preoccupation with when your next meal will be
  • Obsessively planning meals in advance 
  • Not feeling physically hungry, but wanting to eat
  • Reading recipes, researching foods 

And ultimately…. just an overall fixation on food, and an inability to focus on anything else.

Our physical hunger is regulated by a hormone called Ghrelin. It is the hormone that tells us we are hungry, and ready to eat (1). This can signal stomach rumbling, hunger pangs, cravings and low energy.

If you are somebody who has a long-term history of restriction, these physical cues may be suppressed. This means your body can’t rely on these physical signals to regulate eating. 

So, our bodies adapt to this – and it manifests as mental hunger. 


Why Do I Constantly Think About Food? 

Food is a central part of the human experience. We need it to breathe, walk, learn, read, talk, function. 

When this extends to consume your entire mind and life, it can be overwhelming. 

Thinking about food is a universal experience in eating disorder recovery. This can be frustrating. After beginning to nourish your body with enough food, it can be confusing when you are still fixating on food, constantly.

Despite what your mind may tell you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is your body sending you signals that it needs more! 


There are many reasons you may be thinking about food, and it may be useful to identify these reasons.


woman staring out the window thinking while holding a coffee in her right hand


Not Eating Enough/Skipping Meals 

As mentioned, we need energy from food to survive. 

If you aren’t eating enough, and are skipping meals throughout the day, your body has mechanisms in place to keep you from starving. This can take the form of mental hunger. 

Coming from long term dieting, your body may not be sending physical hunger cues. It may have adapted to the physical side of restricting. 

Your hunger may not present itself through the standard signals – stomach grumbling, hunger pangs, cravings. 

Instead, your body makes it quite hard to focus on anything else, aside from food. 

Missing entire meals can fuel a binge-restrict cycle, regulated by mental hunger. When going for long periods of time without eating, your mental hunger can become quite overwhelming. This can lead to you eating past comfortable fullness.

It is important to eat every 2-4 hours. This ensures you are meeting your energy and nutrient requirements, so that you have the ability to focus on things other than food! 


You May Be Food Obsessed Due to Poor Sleep

Research has found a lack of sleep may cause food cravings (2).

For most Australian adults, it is recommended to aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night (3). 

The production of hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin are disrupted by inadequate sleep, and this can lead to increased food cravings (4). 

Poor sleep can also lead to difficulty concentrating, tiredness, mood changes and decision making. These all lead to an increase in food cravings and tendency to opt for convenient, non-nutritionally dense foods (5).  


Food Obsession is Common In Eating Disorder Recovery

It’s common to experience extreme hunger in recovery. This can take the place of physical or mental hunger. 

Mental hunger is often what fuels much of recovery. Long-term restricting, as mentioned, suppresses your physical hunger cues. 

You may have to rely on your mental cravings to eat enough. 

It is important to remember that while you may be meeting what you perceive to be ‘enough’, or what is outlined in your meal plan, your body does often require more than the minimum. 

Dealing with mental hunger in recovery can be confronting. It feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to listen to your body, after treating it so poorly. 

Mental hunger in recovery can be life saving. It is a survival mechanism! But, preoccupation with food can be limiting you from focusing on reconnecting with your self, and your life. 

Thinking about food is part of being human, but when it consumes the majority of your mental energy, it’s not normal. Working through these compulsions and cravings is pivotal in mending your relationship with food. 

Mental hunger is truly only satiated when you allow yourself the unconditional freedom to eat what you want, when you want it. 

Without holding onto restrictive behaviours and satisfying disordered cognitions.

If you want a chocolate bar, but opt for a protein ball – you are still withholding food your body wants, needs & craves, and the fixation will just persist. 

The intensity of it passes with time, and the only way to lessen the preoccupation is to eat.


Are You Honouring Your Food Cravings?

You may find yourself craving a chocolate bar, and eat a nut bar instead, telling yourself something along the lines of ‘it’s healthier’.

But, this won’t satiate that craving. More often than not, you will end up eating the chocolate bar regardless. 

Listening to your body, honouring what it craves, will help satiate the intensity of the hunger. 

Craving these foods isn’t a bad thing. It’s just important to allow yourself the permission to eat them, overcome the barriers your mind has set. 

Through honouring these cravings, you are freeing your mind of the particular craving and food obsession. Allowing you to have space in your mind for things other than food! 


How Do I Stop Wanting To Eat All The Time? 

Essentially, you need to begin to eat enough. 


Unconditional Permission to Eat What You Want, When You Want 

This means eating enough each and every day. Not just when you give yourself permission to. 

Unconditional nourishment, frequently throughout each day, every day. 

Mental hunger is not a bad thing. It is not something to be ashamed about. But again, it can impact your ability to function and focus on other things, things that bring you joy.

Food should not consume your life, and there are strategies to implement that can help you manage this. 


Build Balanced Snacks and Meals

3 meals is a necessity, and snacks are equally important. 

Opting for satiating foods, ones that you truly enjoy and are craving, will ensure you are meeting your nutrient requirements!

Carbohydrates, protein and fats are all essential in regulating hunger cues and signals. 

Of course, not every meal is going to be perfectly balanced. This is more than okay! This is part of being human.

It is a fine line between doing this effectively and doing it obsessively. While it is important to plan meals and snacks, you don’t want to let this consume and occupy so much of your mind. 


It can be really beneficial to work with an Accredited Practising Dietitian. They can help you plan these balanced food choices in a way that doesn’t become obsessive. They may help you through: 

  • Planning a grocery list together, and deciding a set day each week to do your shopping
  • Build a meal plan with flexibility and room for spontaneity
  • Working on mending your relationship with hunger and fullness cues
  • Educate you surrounding nutrition and food choices


Practise Mindful Eating Strategies 

You may be in the habit of watching television while eating, or playing on your phone. While this provides a routine you love, it takes your attention away from what you are eating.

It is important to eat mindfully. This means paying attention to the cues your body is sending. Paying attention to the taste, texture and action of eating. 

This mindset helps you in feeling hunger and fullness cues, and listening to your body.

While this approach is great, it isn’t suitable for everyone. In eating disorder recovery, it may be helpful to have distractions while eating. 

Working with a treatment team can help you implement this if and when you are ready.


How Can I Change My Mindset Around Food?

There are ways to mend your relationship with food, and work on regulating both physical and mental hunger cues. 


Stop Labelling Foods ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’

Over time, it becomes instinctive to choose the ‘healthy’ and ‘good’ option to eat, over what you really crave and enjoy. 

Not honouring your hunger, and being conditional about what foods you are ‘allowed’ to eat, will just increase your fixation and thinking about food.

The more you restrict what you love, the more likely you are to stay stuck in this cycle. 

All food is good. All food fits in a balanced, diverse and healthy diet. 

Move away from this all or nothing mindset. Life isn’t as simple as distinct, black and white, good and bad options. There is power in flexibility. 

break up with diets ebook


Decrease Food Obsession, Stop Focusing On Your Weight

Not eating enough = increased thoughts about food. This is well established. 

You may be not eating enough due to a fixation on your weight, and the perception of control this restriction provides you.

Food obsession is decreased when you eat enough, consistently. Plain and simple. It may linger for a while, but over time, the thoughts will lessen.

The scales may be holding you back from allowing this flexibility with food. They may be how you dictate what you eat and when you eat it.

Part of mending your relationship with food is to abandon the power the scales have over you. 


Listen To Your Body’s Hunger and Fullness Signals 

Long-term dieting may create a difficult relationship between identifying and taking action on your hunger and fullness cues. 

Over time, while eating enough, your hunger signals will restore. Your body will learn to trust you again. 

Recognising these symptoms of hunger and fullness can guide you on your journey to intuitive eating – the ultimate goal for a healthy relationship with food.


This can look like: 

  • Eating mindfully, paying attention to how your body feels 
  • Going back for seconds if you aren’t satisfied 
  • Setting up regular meal times, but eating in between when you feel those hunger pangs 


Create a Food, Fullness and Thoughts Journal

It can be useful to journal a few days of eating, fullness and thoughts associated.

This can help you in noticing patterns and thoughts surrounding your meals, and any changes you should implement to reach your goals of a sweeter relationship with food.

It is important to do this in a way that is safe for you. Some don’t feel comfortable taking note of this, and may find it distressing in recovery from an eating disorder.

Ensure you are in a strong place mentally to do this, alongside support. 

You may notice particular trigger foods and meals that leave you unsatisfied, and thinking about your next meal.  

A dietitian can work with you to see what can be added and changed to help you reach a comfortable level of fullness, mentally and physically. 


Support From A Professional 

Thinking about food constantly  is difficult to deal with alone, in silence. There are emotions that come with it, and difficulty managing these emotions yourself.

It is a process – learning to honour your hunger, listen to your body and trust the people you love. 

There is no joy in living a life consumed by what you are going to eat, and when you are going to eat it. Spending each moment thinking about your next meal, rather than the company you are with, the activities and passions you love. You may lose yourself in your head.

Challenge the rules, the thoughts, the compulsions. 


Working with a dietitian can help you identify common triggers and reasons behind the intrusive food related thoughts.

Dietitians at Imbodi Health encourage intuitive eating and can help you on your path to mending your relationship with food.

Life beyond food obsession is tangible. Remember that the longer you spend depriving yourself of the foods you crave, is the longer you will spend thinking about food.  Be kind to yourself and listen to your body.

Reach out for a discovery call with eating disorder specialists at Imbodi Health




Written by: Student dietitian Tara Finn

Reviewed by: Imbodi Health dietitian Jade Wrigley

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