This post is going to dive deep – 1, 000 feet under the water – so you can truly learn to why and how to stop thinking about food all the time.
We’re going to start from the very bottom and work our way up so that we have a strong foundation.
Developing a firm foundation — an understanding of key psychological and emotional forces — will be important for you.
You can try all sorts of different self-care strategies, but if you lack an understanding of these powerful forces then no matter how many pages of journaling you fill up, your thoughts will still be magnetized to food.
For example, you can try self-care strategies like ‘just take a walk instead of eating your feelings’.
But if you aren’t aware of the powerful, subconscious undercurrents that are gravitating your thoughts towards food, your walking will quickly devolve into a time where you are walking and thinking about food at the same time.
All self-care strategies, from walking to calling a friend, will fall short if you don’t address your deeper psychological needs in a straightforward way.
And that’s what we are going to do in this article.
By starting at the deepest layers/darkest waters of your subconscious mind, we’re going to become aware of these powerful currents so that you can navigate them.
Then we’ll resurface for 7 self-care strategies on how to stop thinking about food all the time.
This time around, the self-care strategies will work better because you’ll have an understanding of the mindset behind the strategy.
Here are the deeper, foundational concepts we will examine before looking at the 7 strategies of self-care:
- Survival Brain
- Emotional Needs
We’re going to talk about these first so let’s dive in!
Deeper Mindset #1 – Your Survival Brain Keeps You Thinking About Food
If you’re wondering why you can’t stop thinking about food …
Your survival brain is why.
Your survival brain is the area in red called your ‘brain stem’.
This is the part of your brain which is responsible for things like:
- Physiological Processes
Isn’t it great you can fall asleep and still wake up the next day breathing?
Right? Isn’t that pretty cool? You totally forgot about your breathing while you slept, but you were still breathing when you woke up!
That’s pretty cool I think 🙂
That’s your ‘survival brain’ at play.
But it turns out that your survival brain is also responsible for you constantly thinking about food all the time!
Your Survival Brain Is Responsible For You Thinking About Food All The Time
People can go absolutely crazy if they don’t know about their survival mind.
Most people I end up working with report that one of their main symptoms is continuously thinking about food, constantly obsessing about food.
They think they are crazy!
Why in the hell can’t they stop thinking about food?!?!?!?!?!
Well … it turns out that ‘you’ aren’t thinking about food.
Your survival brain is thinking about food, but you are not your survival brain.
‘You’ are the prefrontal part of the brain (in the diagram above it’s highlighted in green).
In this ‘prefrontal’ section of the brain you have your personality, dreams, goals, memories …
But the crazy thing is …
Your ‘survival’ brain is more powerful than your ‘prefrontal’ brain. Like 1000x more powerful.
So that’s why you can’t stop thinking about food all the time.
Conscious you – the prefrontal thinking part of your brain – are trying to stop thinking about food.
But subconscious you – the survival part of your brain – is thinking about food all the time.
Guess who wins? You already know.
The survival brain wins hands down.
So if you want to stop thinking about food all the time, you better humble yourself.
You better learn to speak the language of the survival mind, because otherwise you’re in for a lifetime of struggle.
People with eating disorders have a real hard time humbling themselves to meet their needs.
That’s what makes eating disorders so nasty! Your thinking voice thinks that it’s in control, but it’s not!!!
The eating disorder thinking voice refuses to believe that the survival mind exists. That’s why people who suffer from anorexia nervosa don’t eat!
Their thinking mind refuses to believe the survival mind needs food, and instead seeks control over food consumption instead.
To fix this, you need to understand what the survival brain wants, give the survival brain what it wants. Then the survival brain will start to quiet down.
Mindset #2 Basic Needs: Give The Survival Brain What It Wants So That It Quiets Down
Your survival mind won’t shut up about food because of two reasons:
- Physiological Needs
- Emotional Safety
These compromise your basic needs.
Physiological Needs include:
- And … drumroll … food
Emotional safety is a sense of safety or security in regards to:
- Relationships with others
- Relationship with yourself
If you aren’t feeling safe, or if you aren’t getting your physiological needs met, your survival brain is going to be on red alert.
It’s important to recognize what the survival brain really needs.
Because ‘journaling’ is not what the survival brain needs. Even if you are trying to keep a food journal app for the right reasons …
The survival brain needs two things and two things only:
- Meeting Physiological Needs
- Emotional Safety
So later on when we go through 7 types of self-care strategies …
It’s important that you start any self-care strategy by asking these two questions:
- “Does this help me meet my physiological needs?”
- “Does this truly make me feel safe?”
Because journaling (as an example of a self-care strategy) is great – but only if it truly makes your survival mind feel safe, or helps you meet your physiological needs.
And there’s no tricking the survival mind!
You can’t trick the survival mind into thinking journaling is good for you.
Journaling, or whatever other self-care strategy you choose, must actually truly make your survival mind feel safer, or help you meet your physiological needs.
Now don’t get me wrong here – it’s not possible to feel entirely 100% safe. Like totally no stress, that’s not possible.
I mean, hell, coronavirus could sneak up and get you right now!
But, your self-care activities have to give you more safety than what you currently have before you did the activity.
For example, if you put a lot of pressure on yourself to journal, it could actually backfire and make you feel less safe!
But if you are able to journal and relax a little bit – just feel a little safer, then this is working. Just a little safer, that’s our goal with self-care behaviors.
This mindset is absolutely crucial because it gives you a way to see if the self-care strategy is working or not.
Instead of just writing in your journal and thinking that writing alone will make you stop thinking about food all the time …
Now you have a way to evaluate your journal writing (and all other self-care activities):
- Is my journaling helping me meet my physiological needs?
- Is my journaling helping me feel more safe, secure and calm?
Needs Met Versus Feeling More Safe
Now obviously journaling isn’t going to put food on the plate.
There’s a difference between the emotional needs of your personality and soul versus the physiological needs of your body.
Remember, your physiological needs are simple:
- And … let me say it again because this article is about food … FOOD
You need FOOD.
At the Eating Disorder Center where I work and from private clients, I constantly get this remark:
“I didn’t know I could eat so much healthy food, feel great and satisfied, and not gain weight.”
I hear this remark a lot because both at the Center and within my private practice, there’s a bunch of emphasis put on meeting your physiological need for FOOD.
That’s right, FOOD.
If you are starving – and missing out on your physiological needs – no amount of journaling will help.
No matter how safe journaling makes you feel, nothing will help you to stop thinking about food all the time if you are still starving.
Or hell, you don’t even have to be starving, you could just be innocently undereating.
Let me make this point crystal clear:
Self-care strategies are great, but if you are not getting your physiological needs met then your self-care activities will still fall short.
The Bare Minimum Of Food You Need To Avoid Triggering Your Survival Mind
Here are some guidelines for you to keep in mind if you’re serious about ending your obsessive thoughts about food.
After we cover these guidelines so that your physiological needs are met, we’ll dive into the 7 self-care strategies.
But first, we must talk about the bare minimum of food that you need to avoid triggering your survival mind.
Because remember, your survival mind is just trying to keep you alive.
If you are undereating, your survival instinct will kick in and make you think about food so that you eventually eat.
Here are some innocent ways you might be undereating and accidentally triggering your survival mind to think about food:
- Skipping meals
- Eating homogeneous meals (like eating only pasta at a meal)
And this is why weight loss must be put on the back burner while you focus on learning to stop thinking about food.
Don’t get me wrong, weight loss is quite possible. But let weight loss happen naturally as you fix the relationship between your mind and body.
Learn to think less about food and weight – not because you are forcing yourself to shift your attention elsewhere – but simply because your stomach and survival brain trust that they will be well fed by your eating habits and they will feel safe and don’t need to worry about food.
Here are two basic guidelines to follow that will make sure you meet your physiological food needs:
- Eat 3-5 times per day
- Have a balanced meal when you eat (approximately ⅓ carbs, ⅓ protein, and ⅓ fat)
The first part just means you eat 3 meals and 2 snacks, something like that.
Yes, your body does need this much food. I know that intermittent eating is popular on social media. That’s where you only eat within an 8 hour time frame per day.
But whatever your meal frequency, you need to eat at least 3 hearty meals per day.
Your body weight doesn’t matter. Fat, skinny, normal – your body weight doesn’t mean you should eat more, or less.
No matter how many calories you eat – remember – you have to be physiologically satisfied.
Your belly needs to be happy.
The second part just means that you have a balanced meal when you eat.
Like steak, veggies and potatoes.
Beans, rice, and veggies.
Milk, nuts, and cereal.
Now don’t get tongue-tied here.
Most people are going to overfocus and ask questions like:
- What if I get 40% protein and only 20% carbs?
- How many calories in this food is 20% of XYZ?
Screw all the numbers.
I want you to get the basics down.
All we need to make sure is that your survival brain is satisfied.
Don’t worry about perfection.
Throw the calories obsession out the window.
Calories can be useful, but if you go by calories only you’ll drive yourself insane.
Again, you can’t trick your belly.
If you are eating in such a way where you feel good …
You’ll dramatically decrease your thoughts about food.
So in regards to the second guideline, about eating balanced meals …
Balanced meals will help you feel satisfied.
That’s how we are judging our everyday meals.
We aren’t going by calories.
Just like journaling won’t automatically make you feel safer, following the right calories guidelines won’t automatically make your weight go down either, or your brain to stop thinking about food all the time.
What will make your brain quiet down (and ultimately get your weight down too) is if you eat balanced hearty meals 3-5x per day.
This will make you physiologically satisfied.
If you are physiologically satisfied, you are in a good relationship with food.
From this good relationship with food, your weight will take care of itself.
Will your weight decrease right away? No. Weight doesn’t work that way.
You didn’t gain the weight all at once so it’s not going away all at once either.
My suggestion? Forget about weight!
The hardest part is simply eating 3-5x per day. Per day!!!!
Like seriously not skipping breakfast, not skipping lunch, not skipping dinner.
Can you imagine not skipping meals? That’s incredibly hard for many people to pull off.
But I want to be brutally honest with you so that you know what it takes to stop thinking about food all the time.
You have to get your physiological foods met.
This means your belly has to feel satisfied.
Remember how earlier I said that journaling wouldn’t count as self-care if your standards are too high ?
Like if you had standards that are too high, then you would be afraid of failing and wouldn’t feel safe?
And that if you didn’t feel safe then journaling wouldn’t count, even if you wrote out 10 pages on how you felt?
Well…You can’t trick your belly either.
If you are eating crap, or skipping meals…
Your belly ain’t gonna be satisfied.
If your belly ain’t satisfied, your survival brain is gonna be thinking about food.
These are the 2 fundamental laws you must obey if you want to stop thinking about food all the time.
- Belly satisfied with enough food and nutrients
- Emotionally feeling safer
The first point correlates with meeting your physiological needs (Mindset #2). The second point is also about meeting your emotional needs, again from Mindset #2.
If you can meet your needs, then the survival brain (Mindset #1) will calm down and stop thinking about food all the time.
Author’s Note: now don’t worry about getting everything perfect all at once. Listen, you aren’t going to stop thinking about food on a dime. It’s not like your food obsessions will evaporate overnight and you’ll just wake up without food thoughts. No. But if you focus on eating regularly, and focus on feeling a bit safer with some self-care activities, you’ll notice that your food thoughts decrease. This will give you motivation to continue onwards!
7 Ways To Meet Your Needs For Safety And Stop Thinking About Food
These are the self-care strategies that I rely upon myself.
Remember, if you aren’t eating enough then these won’t really work!
But, if you are eating enough food then these strategies can help.
For me personally, I get cravings when I don’t practice at least some of these self-care activities, and if I haven’t eaten enough.
- Therapy / Calling A Friend
- Going On A Walk / Enjoyable Exercise
- Nap / Getting Enough Sleep
- Creative Expression
- Screen Time
1. Therapy / Calling A Friend
Therapy has been a cornerstone for me.
I might even continue with therapy for the rest of my life!
My message for therapy and coaching is simple:
Therapy or coaching doesn’t mean you have a problem.
It’s just good to talk with someone who ‘gets’ you and can offer you a different perspective.
Now I realize not everyone can afford a great therapist or coach, but if you can, do it. The relationship can be life-changing.
And … hopefully you have at least 1 friend you can call and who you know has your back.
It’s very sad to me when I hear that ⅕ of the people in the United States don’t have a friend they can call 🙁
That actually breaks my heart.
If you don’t have a single friend … no judgement, I mean I get it, I used to struggle with connection … but you gotta get a few friends first before you try to stop thinking about food.
I try to call my family or friends a few times per week.
I used to think of calling my friends or family as a chore, but nowadays I just like connecting to people more and it’s enjoyable.
But also remember that if your family or friends stress you out, you won’t get your need for safety met.
So don’t call people just because you should, only do it if you actually feel safer at the end of the day.
2. Going On A Walk
Going on a 5-minute walk counts.
Just moving your body counts.
Jump up and down!
I know sooo many people who feel like simple, easy, enjoyable exercise doesn’t count.
But screwwww counting.
Listen, you gotta exercise for mental health.
- Don’t worry about exercising to burn calories
- Don’t punish yourself with exercise just because you’ve been ”bad”
Here’s the rule of thumb: exercise should make you feel happier!
Some days I am too much in a brain fog to exercise.
But … I know that I can walk for 5 minutes and that I’ll feel better.
No, I won’t feel the best. But better than I was!
Nap / Getting Enough Sleep
For my whole life I fought my natural sleep habits.
My body was telling me I needed 8-9 hours of sleep, but I was always trying to push myself to ‘be productive’ and limited myself to getting around 7 hours of sleep.
But nowadays I have fully embraced my need for 9 solid hours of sleep and it has truly changed my life.
I am able to blow through obstacles. Little things just don’t upset me like they used to.
And honestly … getting to 9 hours of sleep has been a journey unto itself.
It’s taken me awhile to get here.
I couldn’t fall asleep on time …
I would stay up too late …
Even if I was tired I still couldn’t get to bed.
But after about a year of practicing better sleep habits.,,
Like studying what worked and what didn’t …
Trying new things…
I finally have reached an amazing place with sleep.
I will say that two things which have tremendously helped me are …
- A hot shower before bed with the last 2 minutes cold. My muscles are super relaxed afterwards and I won’t fidget as I start falling asleep. Previously that was my problem. I’d be suppperrrr tired, but then I’d toss and turn and wouldn’t get enough sleep.
- App to sleep track. For whatever reason, keeping track of how many hours I was sleeping really helped. I think it was because I could see my number in the morning and directly notice how I felt. I’m at over 100+ days now in a row of sleep tracking.
Occasionally I journal.
Not all the time.
I used to journal more. But now maybe 1-2x per week.
I just lay there on my bed and let myself write stuff.
My goals, my dreams… Mainly just write what I’m struggling with …
Or random creative ideas. Or, I don’t know, sometimes I just feel stuck.
Sometimes if I try other self-care strategies like meditating, hot shower, walk, etc., I still might be stuck. Journaling sometimes helps me get through those times.
If food is your struggle and you want to journal about it, check out the Eating Enlightenment Food Awareness Journal!
Well… I’m fortunate I like blogging. Like creating these blog posts you’re reading right now is actually pretty fun for me.
I like writing this article. Every day I can just write a little bit, mostly for fun, and that really helps me out.
I spend a few hours a week doing something I enjoy for the most part – writing articles.
I get into a good zone. Like right now, I’m in a good flow.
I’m focused. The connection to my words is flowing.
So, ya … creative expression. Creativity.
You’re creative too, I bet. Cooking? Coding? Talking? Joking? Music?
You’re creative too. Why not nurture those creative skills of yours?
I play chess.
I play board games too, although it’s been hard lately because my friends and I haven’t been able to hang out with covid.
So it’s been a lot of chess these days.
Just yesterday I was feeling really guilty about something. Not food, but something else.
Anyways, I knew I had made a mistake, but I also ‘knew’ that my guilt wasn’t warranted.
See, I know that guilt is part of my ‘survival’ brain, and not really me.
(I didn’t talk much about guilt in this post and how it’s related to the survival brain, but it is)
Anyways, I knew I was beating myself up for a small mistake …
I knew I was being hard on myself … And my practices of compassion, movement, etc …
They weren’t really shifting my inner dialogue. So I said screw the inner dialogue, let’s play chess.
Let’s distract yourself with something that you enjoy 🙂
Games!!!! They are soooo important.
Kids play all the time. We are meant to play.
How are you playing in your life?
My favorite YouTube channel right now is “Dead Meat”.
It’s a horror movie review channel.
Why do I like a horror movie review channel?
It’s really well done!!!! The editing is fantastic.
And I’ve always been afraid of scary movies my entire life ….
And I can honestly say that now I’m way less afraid of scary movies.
Anyways, the point is that I like watching this stuff!
It’s entertaining, and gets my mind off of stuff.
But, I’m not spending hours upon hours every day in front of the television.
Screen time can be self-care for sure, but yes, of course it can be a trap too.
And I fall for the trap too for sure. I’m not perfect. But I don’t beat myself up for the mistakes either.
With that being said …
Go try out some self-care strategies!
Make sure they are actually making you feel safer.
And also before you try any self-care strategies:
Eat enough food.
If you want to stop thinking about food all the time, you will need to do both of these strategies:
- Eating enough food regularly so that your physiological need is met
- Practicing self-care so that you feel safer
Learning to stop thinking about food all the time is a journey.
I've been looking all day for strategies to help me deal with thinking about food. Your article explained the science behind this and offered strategies that make sense. Thank you so much for this article.
Great to hear! Thanks for your kind comments 🙂
Thank you very much. I needed this!