We make around 200 decisions about food per day, estimates director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab Brian Wansink. It sounds like a lot, until you break it down: What should I eat for breakfast? What kind of cereal do I want? Should I add fruit? What about a second helping? Do I want coffee or tea? What’s for lunch? And on and on.
While it’s important to put thought into these decisions — being more mindful than mindless — people who grapple with disordered eating tend to overthink decisions. Not only do they think even more about food, but their thoughts tend to be negative or self-judging. Such fixation can contribute to all sorts of problems, from poor self-esteem and body image to risky behaviors, such as yo-yo dieting, compulsive exercise and purging.
Whether you struggle with severe symptoms of disordered eating or want to prevent them from getting worse or to feel generally better about food and eating, committing to improving negative food thoughts can go a long way.
1. “This food is bad for me.”
Viewing foods as “good” or “bad” fuels disordered eating thoughts and behaviors, especially when it becomes an obsession. Deeming certain foods “bad” can lead to feelings of deprivation when you avoid them, guilt after eating them, a desire to punish yourself and even set the starving/binging cycle in motion. You may see yourself as a failure for indulging, which is not the case, or develop psychosomatic reactions to foods you consider “bad.” Research shows that believing you have a food intolerance commonly leads to physical reactions to the foods. In my nutrition-therapy work, I continually noticed that people prone to disordered eating are particularly prone to psychosomatic reactions.
2. “This food will make me fat.”
This thought pattern can also stimulate and perpetuate shame, guilt and a sense of deprivation. Rather than enjoying a treat, or even a healthy food that happens to contain fat or certain ingredients, your mind leaps to an outcome you perceive as negative. Here’s the deal: No particular food will make you “fat” or make or break an overall healthy diet. Even overeating low-nutrient foods on occasion won’t suddenly bring added pounds. Believing they will, on the other hand, may invite weight gain by contributing to compulsive overeating or weight gain associated with a slowed metabolism as a result of intense restriction.
3. “This food is too high in carbs or fat.”
Carbohydrates and fat get a bad rap, but as macronutrients, you need sufficient amounts of both for normal health and function. Sure, some sources are more nutritious than others, but they can all fit within a health-promoting diet. Rather than fixate on fat or carb content, focus on foods’ flavor and the wellness perks they do provide. Instead of ruling out foods high in either nutrient, choose primarily nutritious sources you enjoy — allowing yourself the flexibility to enjoy less nutrient-packed options in moderation.
4. “I’ll have to pay for this later.”
Self-punishment is one of the riskiest disordered eating behaviors. It not only keeps you from enjoying food, but also makes way for harmful follow-up actions. Rather than attempt to compensate for what you’ve already eaten, focus on the present. Once you’ve eaten, remind yourself that there’s no going back or changing what you’ve already consumed. Distract yourself from the temptation to “punish” yourself by shifting focus to a fun or relaxing activity, or work through your feelings in a journal or with a trusted friend or therapist.
It can seem counterintuitive, but the more you fixate on food, the more difficult thriving can become. If you’re struggling in this department, remind yourself that almost all foods contain some nutritional value. Give yourself permission to eat foods with lower nutrient content in moderation, keeping in mind that no one eats “perfectly.” Aim to listen to and respect your body rather than fight it. Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a trusted professional, such as a psychologist or dietitian, along the way. Life and you are too precious to let obsessing over food hold you back.