How often do you think about food?
Many of my clients spend a ton of mental energy thinking about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and what all of that means for their body goals. They feel guilty, stressed, and anxious about eating too much, or the wrong thing, or something they didn’t deem “worth it.” They track and plan and make rules and follow plans, all in an effort to keep their eating (and bodies) “under control.”
Then they come to me, utterly fed up with all this thinking and tracking about food, and tell me that they have wasted decades this way, and desperately want to stop. They tell me they want their brains back.
Maybe this is you too. Maybe you’ve vowed to spend less time obsessing and stressing about food, only to realize that you have no idea how.
Turns out, it’s harder than you might imagine to stop thinking about something. Kind of like when someone says “don’t think about an elephant” and then you immediately think about an elephant, “trying not to think about food” often has the exact opposite of the intended consequence.
But then… how do you stop obsessing about food and get your brain back?? How do you “stop caring” about what you eat, and when, and where, and how much? How do you find “food neutrality”?
The answer is that it depends.
After all, your relationship to food is extremely personal, and each person’s story is different.
But based on my work with clients I can share a few things I’ve noticed tend to help a lot of people move away from food obsession and toward food (and body) neutrality.
6 Steps for Food Freedom
Re-Educate Yourself About Food and Weight. Get educated about anti-diet culture so that you fully understand how everything you’ve learned about food, weight, and health has been a complete lie. This will help support you in #2. I recommend the books The F*ck It Diet, Body of Truth, Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating, and Anti-Diet. (Note: The process of re-education about food and health can be very overwhelming, scary, sad, destabilizing, and uncomfortable, as it often requires a “re-feeding” phase in which you have to eat enough to “undo” the damage done physically and psychologically by dieting/restricting. Be sure you have a solid support system in place as you move through this phase if you need it.)
Stop Dieting. It’s damn near impossible to stop thinking about food all the time when you’re not eating enough, as your re-education will make clear, so please don’t try. If you’re restricting or controlling food intake, or in a caloric deficit, plan on thinking about, dreaming about, and obsessing over food all day for the rest of your life. There is no way around this, so if you’re interested in getting your mental real estate back for other stuff, you’ll need to give up dieting, restricting, and food control. Pro tip: if you’re thinking about food all the time, odds are pretty good you’re just hungry and need to eat more.
Learn to listen to your body. Learn to tune into the signals of your body —including hunger and fullness— and embrace them all as the pure neutral information they are. Your body comes fully equipped with a “user manual” in the form of feelings. When you need air, you breathe. When you need to pee, you feel pressure in your bladder telling you to go find a bathroom. When you need food, you feel hungry. When you’ve had enough, you stop. This user manual is perfectly tailored to you, which makes it a way better source of information than any external food plan, but it can be really hard to hear these signals if you’ve spent a long time tuning them out– and it can be even harder to trust if you’ve been taught that these signals are the enemy.
Dismantle moral attachment to food. Explore, identify, poke holes in, and re-program the meaning you’ve attached to food, weight, calories, body fluctuations, hunger, fullness, etc. In every single example of shit that freaks you out about food and body stuff, there are two components: the thing itself, and the meaning you’ve attached to that thing. Maybe you associate hunger with danger, belly fat with being rejected, a certain number on the scale with being a failure, sugar with poison, or binging with weakness. Learn to detach the story about something’s moral value from the thing itself, and then dismantle and re-program that story. Food is neutral. Hunger is neutral. Belly fat is neutral. Sugar is neutral.
Recognize that you and your body are on the same team. Get super clear on the fact that your body has been trying to protect you every step of the way, no matter what your food/weight journey has been. Your body has been on your side, whether that means protecting you from a perceived famine by making you binge after dieting, or helping you self-soothe with emotional eating. Recognizing that you’re on the same side as your body is such an important part of rebuilding trust, which gives you better access to your body’s “user manual.” Don’t forget that your mind has been on your side all this time too! If you’ve been feeling crazy about food/weight, there is always a good reason. For many of my clients, obsessing about food helped protect them from feeling their feelings, or facing the scary prospect of not being enough as they were. See if you can identify the ways in which your body/mind have been trying to protect you, even as you treated them as the enemy.
Give up the idea that there is a “right way” to eat. Everyone is different —some people thrive with dairy, some don’t. Some feel best with lots of carbs, some with less. Because nobody is in your body, nobody knows how you should eat better than you. And even then, there is no end point or “perfect” way to eat for you. Appetite and cravings will fluctuate daily, with your cycle, with your mood, with stress levels, with the season. That’s exactly how it should be. There is no moral meaning attached to any of it, and there is no such thing as good food or bad food. So the best thing to do is ditch the external rules, clear out the stories about what food means, and then consistently tune in and listen to your body to figure out what works for you.
Appetite and cravings will fluctuate daily, with your cycle, with your mood, with stress levels, with the season. That’s exactly how it should be.
If food neutrality feels like a completely impossible and faraway goal, consider the fact that the urge to eat (and stop eating) is as natural and self-sufficient as the urge to pee.
You probably don’t think much about peeing until you need to pee, right? Even if you’re on a road trip and have to hold it so long that it’s all you can think about for a while, after you pee you just forget about it again, right? You don’t ruminate or obsess, you just move on.
The same thing can be true when it comes to eating. If you tune in, let yourself eat enough, and don’t attach meaning to what you eat, the obsession will fade away. Your body was designed to regulate your weight naturally at the right weight for you, and if you follow the cues it gives you, that’s exactly what will happen.
But if you decide the “right weight for you” is much thinner than what your body wants to be naturally, or you’re committed to a worldview in which what a person eats means something about their moral character or worth… then prepare to be obsessed by thoughts about food, all day, every day, forever. 😉
I know which one sounds better to me.
How about you?