Are you preoccupied with thoughts of food? Restriction may be the cause

Intrusive food thoughts [image of business woman at computer looking distracted]If you find that you are thinking about food all day, having trouble concentrating, or even having trouble sleeping, the reason might be simpler than you think: You might not be eating enough. People I see are often surprised to learn that what they think is healthy discipline is often highly disordered eating.

We live in a culture that tells us we should be restricting our intake and dieting to be our thinnest and most virtuous selves. You may have learned various diet strategies to eat less—skipping meals, limiting certain types of foods, counting calories, or restricting the amount of food you eat. You may believe this is healthy. However, our bodies think otherwise and will override most attempts at restriction.

For most of human history (until the last 100 years or less) food was relatively scarce. To survive as a species in this environment, the bodies of our ancestors—those that survived to reproduce and passed on those genes—successfully prioritized eating over other activities. At times when food was less available, our ancestors learned to stock up on food when they could. Bingeing—or eating a lot when food was available after a famine— was not a matter of poor willpower, but a perfectly normal and healthy body response to starvation. Anyone who didn’t “binge” when a rare animal wandered into their territory wouldn’t survive and pass on their genes. Hence, all of us alive today have genes from ancestors who prioritized getting enough food.

Why Restricting Food Doesn’t Work

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, all mammals—including humans—have five basic needs for survival: sleep, water, air, warmth, and food. If any one of these basic needs is not met, the mammal will eventually die.

These needs can be temporarily subdued, but over time, when any one of these needs is not met, there is an increased drive to meet that need. The longer a basic need goes unmet, the harder it becomes to resist satisfying the need, and several things predictably happen:

  • one’s attention becomes increasingly focused on meeting the need;
  • it becomes hard to concentrate on anything else;
  • a powerful craving to meet the need is experienced;
  • one becomes increasingly irritable and unhappy; and
  • when the need is finally met, a larger than a normal amount is needed to make up for the deprivation.

Consider what happens when you are sleep-deprived. If you pull several all-nighters in a row, by the end of the week you are probably irritable and have trouble concentrating. When you finally do sleep, you sleep longer than on a typical night.

Similarly, if you go on a hike and forget your water bottle, towards the end of the hike, you are probably getting frustrated and increasingly focused on getting a drink, and when you finally do get to a water source, you probably gulp several ounces all at once versus taking a few dainty sips.

To demonstrate how this relates to food and dieting, Kathy Kater, author of the health curriculum Healthy Bodies: Teaching Kids What They Need to Know, provides a lesson plan in which she encourages students to try an “air diet.” The students are given a drinking straw and asked to breathe in and out through the straw, plugging their noses, while listening to a story that is a minute or so long. Typically the students find it hard to concentrate on the story as the air restriction begins. They become increasingly preoccupied and anxious about getting sufficient air. When they are finally allowed to breathe normally, they gasp, gulp, and take in larger-than-usual amounts of air.

How Dieting Backfires

When a person diets or doesn’t eat enough for their body’s needs, they usually become preoccupied with eating and start to experience intrusive thoughts about food, experiencing difficulty in concentration on other things. This is the primal drive trying to ensure survival. When our basic needs are met, preoccupations with that need naturally subside. People on diets may also become increasingly irritable just like people who are sleep-deprived. This can occur among people of all body sizes. Being in a bigger body does not mean that you don’t need regular daily intake.

In her book Secrets From the Eating Lab, Tracy Mann, Ph.D. reports that laboratory studies confirm that dieters show cognitive deficits. “Focusing extensively on food and eating (and sometimes also concerns about your weight) steals valuable attention from other activities, and the more preoccupying food thoughts dieters have, the more difficulty they experience thinking about other things and handling other cognitive tasks.” Thus, even though chronic dieters may not have a traditional eating disorder, this preoccupation with food may interfere with functioning in a significant way.

If you find that you are preoccupied with thoughts about food and maybe even bingeing and are interested in learning more about our approach to working with people with chronic dieting or disordered eating, please reach out. We offer counseling for people of all ages with eating disorders and disordered eating in California.


Kater, Kathy, 2012. Healthy Bodies; Teaching Kids What They Need to Know: A Comprehensive Curriculum to Address Body Image, Eating, Fitness and Weight Concerns in Today’s Challenging Environment.

Mann, Tracy, 2015. Secrets from the Eating Lab.


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