When you can’t get food out of your head
Harriet Frew (Eating and Behavioural Therapist) shares her thoughts
You wake up dreaming about last night’s stir-fry; following a nightmare of accidentally eating 3 croissants when you are trying to avoid carbs; and before your foot touches the carpet and you start a brand new day, your first thought is food. What to have for breakfast or if to eat at all? Am I really hungry? What to have for lunch? You can hear those delicious, frosted cream cakes you baked yesterday lurking in the cupboard and calling you. As you leave the house, you are already thinking about your morning coffee-break and whether you are going to need a snack.
And it goes on throughout the day. Are you being healthy enough? Should you have eaten that extra biscuit? Are you eating mindfully? And the irony is that for all that thinking about food, eating time is precious little in comparison. What a waste you think! You sigh wearily as you think of the minutes and hours seemingly lost as you head is blocked with obsessive food thoughts.
Why, you wonder has food taken this prime place at the centre of your mind? Once upon a time, you are sure that you never thought about it. Well never anymore than what was on television later or whether you had put the bins out or not. You were just living; getting on with life and food didn’t really feature. Yes, you enjoyed it and looked forward to treats and your favourite meals, but these took up momentary blips of your concentration. Not the all consuming headspace they occupy now. How you wish you could go back to those golden days when you and your body just were just more in sync.
Why the food obsession you wonder?
I do not think I have met a client yet who describes this problem, who has not at some point dieted; restricted food; not eaten enough; been a bit too super-healthy or had strict rules around eating – whatever you want to call it. Once you put your body into starvation mode (okay that might seem a bit of a strong word, but you are effectively doing this on a strict diet) your body thinks that it is being starved and switches to self-preservation and survival. When our ancestors were short of food, the number one priority when hunger struck would have been to find some food pretty quickly. Thoughts of food would have dominated!
We also know from starvation studies that when food is limited, people become extremely preoccupied with it. They day-dream about food all day; they might start to hoard food or binge; they cut food up into very small pieces and take hours to consume it. Therefore we can likely predict that if you took anyone off the street and restricted their food, they might well go on to develop a preoccupation with eating. These starvation studies also have taken place away from the Western ideal of thin. This Western influence clearly has an impact but it is only a part of the picture.
The physiological effect of under-eating on the body in some shape or form is often the trigger for obsessive food thoughts. However, very quickly, your emotional relationship with food changes when eating becomes rule-bound. Whereas before the whole food debacle began, you might just eat a delicious cake and celebrate with thoughts such as ‘yum, yum that was delicious. Another one yes please’.
Now, in contrast, foods are in their distinct categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This tends to be slightly different for everyone depending on which set of rules you are following. The problem is that now severe judgment is linked to a ‘bad food’. Then, if said bad food is eaten and the dietary rule is broken, the food can only be enjoyed for a temporary moment. Very quickly, feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, shame, upset and anxiety may flood your brain leaving you feeling decidedly unhappy. The paradox is that you might need to eat more to feel better or just to dissociate from these tricky feelings. You might also feel that these foods now can only be eaten in secret, standing up in a dark cupboard with no-one watching.
Once food has emotion linked to it, no wonder it takes up so much head-space. A simple decision about what to have for lunch is now burdened with anxiety and potential condemnation. Have you made the right decision?
Going deeper, you start to judge your self-worth by your ability to adhere to your rules. If you follow them, you are saintly; doing well; looking good; achieving; earning your food; having willpower and succeeding. Self-esteem temporarily increases although it is understandably fragile. And of course the flip side, when you break your rules and go off course, suddenly you are a failing human being ‘useless, no willpower, hopeless, not good enough, unlikeable’ and all the other labels you might brand yourself with.
So how do you break free?
Breaking free needs a combined approach of working on physiological and psychological strands of the problem. So getting back in touch with your body and listening to what it needs is a step in turning this around. Then, fuelling your body with nutritious food that helps stabilise blood sugar and reduce cravings. Learning to view food with less judgement and having more compassion with yourself about food and life decisions. It is about understanding why you eat for emotional reasons and learning new strategies. It is about building your self-esteem.
Please do get in touch with one of our team if you would like some support in improving your relationship with food. We look forward to hearing from you.