Always Thinking About Food? Here’s How to Stop (9 Steps)


There are a few reasons why you might often think about food.

Your brain uses two separate but interrelated pathways to regulate hunger and food intake. When one of these pathways is triggered, it’ll likely cause you to think about food. The following is a brief overview of each (1, 2):

  1. Homeostatic pathway. This pathway regulates your appetite and is stimulated when your body experiences a calorie deficit. That’s because your body needs calories to produce energy and maintain basic metabolic functions.
  2. Hedonic pathway. This pathway may override the homeostatic pathway and cause food cravings — particularly for hyperpalatable foods — even when your body has enough energy to maintain its metabolic functions.

Hyperpalatable foods include those that are high in fat, salt, and simple sugars, such as candy, desserts, and fried foods, among others. These foods tend to trigger sensory receptors in your brain linked to feelings of pleasure and reward (1, 3).

What triggers the homeostatic pathway

The homeostatic pathway is one of your body’s primary mechanisms for letting the brain know that it needs energy from food (4).

Thus, the main factor that triggers the homeostatic pathway in the brain is your body’s current energy balance.

When your body needs energy, it releases certain hormones, letting your brain know that you’re hungry. The result of these signals from the body may manifest as thoughts about food.

Two of the hormones your body releases to the brain in response to its current levels of energy are leptin and ghrelin. You may have heard of these referred to as your “hunger hormones.”

Leptin suppresses hunger and thoughts about food, as it’s released when your body already has enough energy. Oppositely, ghrelin is released when your body’s low on energy, and it may cause signs of hunger, including thoughts about food (4).

Sometimes thinking about food often may simply mean that you’re hungry, particularly if you’re fasting or it has been a while since you’ve eaten.

What triggers the hedonic pathway

While food thoughts triggered by the homeostatic pathway are a result of true physical hunger, the hedonic pathway might cause you to think about food even when your body doesn’t need calories for energy.

The hedonic pathway is triggered by many things, including (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11):

  • the environment around you
  • food availability
  • your thoughts
  • advertising
  • emotions
  • stress

Sometimes environmental cues, such as a food commercial, being in the presence of certain foods, or simply hearing someone else talk about food can cause you to think about it (12).

Furthermore, recent research suggests that hyperpalatable foods not only stimulate the hedonic pathway in your brain but also might even encourage addiction-like behaviors, such as thinking about food more than usual (13, 14, 15, 16).

However, much of the research conducted on food addiction thus far has been in animals. Plus, some research suggests that the homeostatic pathway may also influence addictive-like food behaviors, which makes sense considering that the two pathways are interrelated (4, 16).

As such, more studies in humans are needed to better understand this condition.

Other hunger triggers

In addition to the homeostatic and hedonic pathways, emerging research has found that gastrointestinal sensors in your gut might trigger an appetite for certain foods (17, 18).

Even though you may not usually be conscious of these reactions in your brain and body, oftentimes they can manifest as cravings or thoughts about food.

SUMMARY

The brain uses two primary pathways to regulate food thoughts. The homeostatic pathway regulates appetite based on your body’s energy stores, while the hedonic pathway may cause cravings even when you aren’t physically in need of calories.

Understanding how food thoughts and behaviors work — and what triggers them in your body — is one way to better control them.

Since food thoughts are caused by many factors, various approaches to stopping them might work better or worse depending on the underlying cause of your own personal food thoughts.

Thus, it’s a good idea to assess your individual circumstances and try multiple solutions to figure out what works best for you.

Here are 9 tips to consider when you’re trying to stop thinking about food all of the time.

1. Take it easy on yourself

Each of us has a unique relationship with food that’s personal and complex.

It may take time to fully understand your own relationship with food, and in the process, it can be easy to let feelings of guilt, blame, or frustration build up when you can’t stop thinking about food (19).

However, constantly feeling down in response to food thoughts may not be helpful in the long run.

In fact, some studies have found that feeling guilty or shameful about your food choices or weight might lead to overeating and make it harder to lose weight (20, 21).

Rather than blaming yourself for constant food thoughts, try to learn to navigate and understand why and how your food thoughts occur.

2. Ask yourself if you’re feeling deprived

The relationship between food restrictions, the brain, and food cravings is complicated, and researchers are still uncovering the details (22).

Still, it appears that restricting specific foods might cause some people to think about food more often, particularly among those susceptible to feeling strong food cravings (23, 24).

For many, setting strict rules regarding what you will or won’t allow yourself to eat doesn’t work in the long term. Instead, try not to make any foods “off-limits,” and allow yourself to trust your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.

Allowing yourself to enjoy certain foods you can’t stop thinking about might actually stop the thoughts. Even less nutritious foods can still be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation.

Additionally, making sure your body isn’t deprived of calories is just as important to controlling food thoughts. Undereating and being low on energy will almost certainly trigger the homeostatic pathway in the brain and cause you to think about food.

This could often be the case for people when they’re fasting or in between meals.

No matter the type of eating plan you’ve chosen to follow, it’s essential to make sure you’re eating enough calories each day to meet your body’s needs. Regularly undereating may lead to greater health problems.

Many calorie calculators are available online, and you can use them to determine your energy needs. Look for one that uses evidence-based formulas like the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation (25, 26).

3. Enjoy healthy meals and snacks

Some research suggests that eating meals and snacks that are both nutritionally adequate and satisfying to your taste may help control your appetite. As a result, this may suppress excessive food thoughts throughout the day (27).

Nutrient-rich foods are those that contain significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients like phytonutrients. Examples include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, and seafood.

Furthermore, foods that are high in protein, fiber, and whole grains typically keep you feeling full for longer, which can keep thoughts of food at bay (27).

Here’s a guide you can use to determine how much protein, fiber, and other nutrients are recommended for your daily calorie intake.

Some healthy snacks that are both nutrient-rich and packed with protein or whole grains include:

  • Greek yogurt with fruit
  • apples with nut butter
  • veggie sticks with hummus
  • cottage cheese with cherry tomatoes
  • whole grain crackers with sliced cheese

Additionally, countless other snacks are also nutrient-rich and satisfying. Just keep in mind that choosing snacks that suit your personal preference also plays a role when it comes to staying satisfied and controlling food thoughts during the day.

4. Drink enough water

Cravings for water can sometimes be confused with cravings for food.

Thus, staying hydrated throughout the day might decrease how often you’re thinking about food.

Drinking enough water might also help lower cravings for hyperpalatable foods, particularly salty foods. Plus, some people may find that drinking water throughout the day suppresses their hunger (28, 29).

However, research to support these associations is limited at this time, and more rigorous studies are needed.

5. Identify your patterns and triggers

Another way to better understand food thoughts is to try and identify things in your life that trigger the hedonic pathway and cause you to think about food when you aren’t hungry.

Common things that may trigger food thoughts include:

  • stress
  • boredom
  • feeling emotional
  • seeing other people eat
  • being around hyperpalatable foods
  • talking about food with family or friends
  • commercials and advertisements for food

Consider keeping a journal for a few days and note down any food thought triggers you identify. You can also make notes about the environment around you and how you’re feeling at the time.

Using these observations, you’ll likely begin to notice some patterns in the triggers and environmental cues that cause you to think about food.

Once you’re aware of these patterns, you may be able to avoid or limit your exposure to those triggers — or you might learn how to distract yourself and navigate through them as they arise.

For example, if you’ve noticed that keeping snacks freely available on your desk triggers you to think about food, you can try to put the snacks away in the cupboard or a drawer so you don’t see them as often.

6. Learn to let the thoughts pass

Some thoughts about food are only temporary.

If you notice these thoughts arise but know that you aren’t really hungry, you can try distracting your mind with thoughts about other things besides food. This might help food thoughts or cravings pass.

A few examples of things you can try to distract yourself are:

  • pause and take a break from what you’re doing
  • stand up and stretch
  • take a walk
  • drink a glass of water
  • read something that interests you
  • work on your favorite craft or hobby
  • meditate for a few minutes, for example using an app
  • journal about how you’re feeling

7. Consider mindful eating

Mindful eating is a technique characterized by being present and aware of the full mind and body experience you have while eating.

Mindful eating has many benefits for your health, one of which is learning to respond positively to environmental cues that trigger thoughts about food (30, 31).

In practice, mindful eating includes many different habits, such as:

  • eating slowly
  • removing all distractions like the TV or your phone
  • paying attention to the colors, scents, textures, and flavors of food
  • staying aware of your body’s hunger and fullness cues throughout the meal

8. Move more

Images of food are one thing that might trigger your brain’s hedonic pathway and cause you to think about food. Interestingly, some types of physical exercise might influence how your brain responds to these images.

For example, two small studies found that reward centers in the brain were stimulated less than usual by pictures of high calorie foods following exercise (32, 33).

Still, while it appears that physical activity and appetite are deeply interrelated, more research is needed to better understand how physical activity affects appetite, the brain’s reward center, and subsequent food thoughts (34).

Nevertheless, given that it’s well known that physical activity has many benefits for health, increasing your exercise throughout the day to minimize food thoughts may be worth trying.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) currently recommends that healthy adults get at least 2.5–5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity per week, or 1.25–2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity per week (35).

Moderate intensity physical activity includes:

  • dancing
  • gardening
  • water exercises
  • walking at a brisk pace
  • bicycling slowly

Vigorous intensity physical activity includes:

  • hiking
  • heavy yard work
  • distance or lap swimming
  • running
  • bicycling quickly

If you want to get started with a daily or weekly exercise routine as a way to stop thinking about food, it may be best to start with moderate intensity activities and slowly build up to incorporating more vigorous activities.

9. Know when to ask for help

It’s important to know that sometimes you might need extra help learning to control your food thoughts.

If your thoughts about food, body image, or your eating habits have become so intense that they’re interfering with your normal daily activities, it may be time to reach out to a trained professional.

Seeking out a physician, dietitian, or psychologist you trust to help you navigate these issues could be one of the most important steps you take to stop thinking about food so often.

SUMMARY

There are many tips and techniques you can try to stop thinking about food, but not every technique will work for everyone. Thus, it may take some experimenting to figure out how to best suppress your own food thoughts.



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