Food focus: how to get your mind off mealtime
When you’re on the path to weight loss, feeling extra hungry is part of the territory. You’re eating less than your body wants to induce fat loss and your mind is definitely taking notice. You might catch yourself daydreaming about all your favorite junk food. Even minutes after you finish a meal, you’re mind jumps to those cravings and the next time you get to eat. It’s not uncommon to experience this kind of food focus, but it doesn’t have to break you. Instead of caving to the cravings, there are ways to navigate your food obsessions.
That initial feeling of hunger comes from a hormone called ghrelin. It’s a chemical produced in the stomach that tells your brain when you need to eat. But you can’t always depend on ghrelin to regulate your food intake. Ghrelin has as many ties to your emotions as it does your digestive system and can make you feel like eating even when you’ve had enough.
Intuitive eating is a diet method that relies solely on what your feeling and what your body is telling you to eat. Basically, you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. But the complexity of ghrelin levels can make eating intuitively difficult. You could be feeling hungry because you’re stressed, lonely, bored or a whole host of other reasons that have nothing to do with food.
That’s where my first piece of advice comes in: figuring out your emotional ties to food. During a diet, you may be convinced that you’re actually starving and your body is telling you to eat out of necessity. But that isn’t always true. If you can sort through all the images of chocolate-covered donuts and cheesy fries, you might be able to find the source of this fixation on food. Did you have a stressful work day? Are you feeling lonely because you haven’t seen your friends in a while? Are you just bored because you’re stuck watching TV all day? What feeling are you trying to drown out with the food? Maybe if you satisfy the emotion, the obsession with the food will subside.
It helps to not only be aware of your emotions before you eat, but also your emotions after you eat. If you cave to the hunger and scarf down a bag of chips, what’s the feeling that’s left over when the bag is empty? Besides being full of course. Are you feeling regret because you went off your diet? Is that underlying feeling, the stress or sadness, still there? Did you actually solve anything by eating? Before I reach for the snack, I like to think ahead to how I might feel after I’ve eaten it and if it’s going to be worth it to me. Sure, that pizza sounds amazing, but I know that as soon as I’m done eating, all I’m going to feel is lethargic and annoyed at myself for not making better choices. In simpler terms, try to predict the consequences of your choices and if you can live with them.
After a few weeks of eating healthier, you may notice that your body’s tolerance to junk food and processed ingredients has changed. Months ago, you could eat a greasy burger and feel totally fine, but now all it gives you is a stomach ache. Hold on to that realization! If you notice how that unhealthy food makes your body feel, you may be less likely to eat it. After months of dieting, I finally gave myself a cheat day and shovelled in all the fast food I was craving. I immediately felt so sick I could barely move. My body didn’t know what to do with all the useless garbage and it just sat in my stomach like a brick for hours. I’d only had one cheat day, but already, I didn’t want to have another one anytime soon. I took notice of how sick my body felt when I gave it the wrong food and it made me even more motivated to give it the right food. You may be driven to snack too often just for the feeling of being full, but when you finally crack and stuff yourself silly, the feeling isn’t nearly as enjoyable as you think.
Intermittent fasting is a helpful method to weight loss and just overall health. It’s an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating, according to Healthline. For example, you could choose to only eat your meals between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. That way your body goes through a 12 hour time period with no food. This strategy not only helps you shed the pounds, but can also improve digestion and rid your organs of toxins. It helps that your fasting period includes the hours you spend sleeping, but that doesn’t make the hours you’re awake and not eating any easier. I would recommend scheduling your fast during the busiest hours of your day. Find that time when you have so much on your mind that there’s not any room left to think about food. When I was intermittent fasting, I chose not to eat during my 9 hour work shift because I was constantly on the go. I didn’t have to think about being hungry because work took every bit of my focus. And I had the benefit of eating the rest of the day when I got home.
If the workplace isn’t your ideal distraction, find other ways to fill your time. Find a hobby or a project, even a social media platform to get involved in. Find something that entertains you and emotionally satisfies you. Make time in your day for that book you want to read or that podcast you need to catch up on. Journal, draw, run errands, or call a friend. Life’s full of endless ways to refocus your energy, don’t let meal time be the most exciting thing on your to do list.
Hydration is just as important as diet changes when you’re trying to lose weight. And drinking lots of water can also kill your food focus. Obsessing over a meal? Chug a gallon of water and see how your stomach is feeling. You may have to run to the bathroom more often than you’re used to, but your body will thank you. For most people, more water is always better and it can make you feel full for a little while until it’s meal time again.
One of the most helpful things I did to ignore my food thoughts was timing out my meals. Because a caloric deficit limited how much food I could eat in a day, I wanted to make that food last. Instead of eating it all at once, I made as many small meals as I could and divided them up throughout my day. I would give each one a precise time, like setting an alarm. That way, even if I started thinking about food, I could tell myself exactly how much time I had to kill to my next meal. Food was never too far away and my body learned to expect meals at those times. My ghrelin levels adjusted to my eating schedule and the more I committed to the times, the less munchy I felt outside of those times. Our bodies love routine and structure, and show the most success in a consistent pattern. Finding an eating schedule doesn’t let you get dramatic in your food obsessions. You know when the food is coming and that it’s not the end of the world.
If there’s a certain food you keep obsessing over, just make room for it. You can be on a diet and still have a treat every now, and then. No matter how unhealthy it may seem, every food is just a combination of nutrients. Carbs, proteins and fats. If you want a cookie, look up the ingredients and figure out exactly how much wiggle room you have in your meal plan. If it’s high carb, eat fewer carbs that day. If it’s high fat, drop down your fat intake. Sometimes the best way to kill a craving is to just eat the dang food. Satisfy your obsession and move on.
If the food focus is just to much to ignore, pick food full of fiber and protein. Both are naturally very filling because they slow down digestion. Fiber goes through our bodies completely undigested and is excreted. Protein is never stored as fat and can only help you create a more toned figure. There’s not much consequence to eating either one as long as you don’t overdo it. So if you’ve scarfed all your meals for the day and are still stuck on food, find some vegetables or hearty meat. Make a choice that will allow you to eat a little more without taking a step back in your weight loss.
If you’re in a bulking period, focusing on muscle gain instead of fat loss, I have good news for you. When you’re dreaming about food, just eat. Enjoy the fact that you’re supposed to be in a caloric surplus and there’s plenty of room for all your cravings. If you’re tracking your meals, you can maintain control while still putting away a substantial amount of food. Don’t be afraid of the weight gain or that you’ve “let yourself go”. In my experience, even when you’re eating more than ever, as long as you make tracking and workouts a priority, the extra calories go where they should. If you’ve restricted yourself to a certain calorie number, but you’re still focused on food all the time, you’re probably not eating enough. It can be scary testing the waters of a bulk phase, but the uncomfortable moments are all worth it. You’re not going to get “fat” overnight. Eat the food, find a rhythm, and enjoy yourself.
At the end of the day it’s just food. It’s a tool for us to keep our bodies healthy. It’s not worth your mental anguish. The immediate gratification of that food will never outweigh the satisfaction of achieving your goals. You’ll never look back at life and think about all the junk food you didn’t eat. You will however look back at all the years you spent in a body that you hated. Food focus can happen when you’re adjusting to a new lifestyle, but don’t be discouraged. The mentality isn’t permanent. Find the source, make some changes, and work towards a solution.