Are You Thinking About Food Too Much? Here's The Line

When regular eating becomes disordered eating -- it's more common than we think.

We all think about food every single day, and for a bunch of different reasons -- out of necessity, for fun, out of boredom, for comfort and for enjoyment.

But at what point are we thinking about food too much? How much time should food and eating really be occupying in our minds?

"Eating is part of our lives and everything we do day-to-day. But when it becomes obsessive, negative or causes us anxiety, that's when there's an issue," Vivienne Lewis, clinical psychologist at the University of Canberra, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"It goes from instinctual eating because you're hungry, to 'Oh God, I shouldn't have eaten that'."

Sound familiar? The point at which regular eating tips over to disordered eating is far more common than we realise.

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How much time should we think about food?

There's no 'ideal' amount of time we should be thinking about food, but there is a normal and abnormal amount.

"The 'normal' amount of time would depend on whether they're male or female and what their role is within their environment -- whether they're responsible for the production of meals or just feeding themselves, or whether good food is a particular interest (but not obsessive interest) for you. It's very much context-driven," Frances Quirk, director of research at Barwon Health in Victoria, told HuffPost Australia.

Food and food consumption, and body shape and weight, is very much socialised into Western culture, so we tend to put more importance on these than we need to.

"It's also about the current context of your life that dictates how often you think about food and how much of a part that plays in your everyday cognitive turnover.

"If you're thinking about food for the majority of the time and it's impacting on other things (like your relationships, your job, or your own feelings), then you're moving into the domain of a disordered level of cognition around food and eating behaviour."

Food is more than numbers and calories.
Food is more than numbers and calories.

What are the signs of disordered eating?

The telltale signs of disordered eating depend on what eating disorder the person is presenting with or at risk of. But there are common behaviours.

"One of the things that is a red flag, when working with individuals with disordered eating or difficulties with body image, is when there are foods they are afraid of -- if there's a sense of, 'I can't eat any of those things', whether that be biscuits, chocolate or crisps," Quirk said.

"You're constantly thinking: 'Is this a healthy food or not?', 'Can I eat this or not?', 'Will I gain weight if I eat that?', 'Is this within my rules?', or feel obsessive about foods that are 'off the list'.

"We even have idioms in our phraseology -- 'a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips' -- that reinforce the view that these foods are scary and that they have power to really influence your weight, shape or way of thinking."

Signs indicative of disordered eating:

  • You have rules around eating
  • You start to eat under certain conditions (and feel anxious without them)
  • You can't be flexible with your eating and eating times
  • You take a long time to decide what to eat
  • You constantly override your desire for certain foods or drinks because of the amount of calories they contain
  • You over-analyse every food choice and situation
  • You eat in secret
  • You find eating out with friends difficult and distressing
  • You attribute the view of yourself to a very blunt indicator (e.g. the weight on a set of scales)
  • You think about food all the time

Basically, if you find yourself overly concerned with anything related to food, eating, weight and shape, you may have crossed the line between regular and disordered eating.

"Certainly some of the earlier signs include over concern with weight and shape, over concern with food choice, over concern with food metric (weight, number of calories, amount of sugar), over concern with the way you look, an obsessive reaction to changes in body weight or perceived weight and shape, and your food intake," Quirk said.

"If thinking about food, planning and preparing is taking up the majority of your thinking, then that's likely to be having an impact on your social life, interpersonal relationships and productivity, and that's the point at which it's worth having a discussion with someone."

Eating disorders affect both men and women, of all ages and backgrounds.
Eating disorders affect both men and women, of all ages and backgrounds.
Peter Dazeley

What can we do from here?

If you're reading this and it's dawned on you that you present signs of disordered eating, know that not only is this common, but there are great support networks to help.

"It's good to realise that disordered eating is quite common to have at different points in life, particularly for women. That doesn't make it normal, however. It creates anxiety and distress, so it's something people need to seek help for quite quickly," Lewis said.

"The best way is for them to go to their GP and talk about it. The GP can then refer them to see a psychologist who perhaps specialises in eating issues and anxiety. That's usually the best thing to do when it's getting completely out of control."

There's also a variety of state and national eating disorder hotlines and organisations that support people who have concerns about their eating, body weight and body shape.

"There is also Lifeline, and private clinics that will accept referrals," Quirk said.

One important thing to keep in mind, for everyone, is to not compare yourself to those on social media.

Avoid endless scrolling and comparing. Healthy looks different on every body.
Avoid endless scrolling and comparing. Healthy looks different on every body.
Squaredpixels via Getty Images

"In Western, developed countries, we have the luxury of having an abundance and an overabundance of food. Food and food consumption, and body shape and weight, is very much socialised into Western culture, so we tend to put more importance on these than we need to," Quirk said.

"There's the additional broader context of living in an environment where food is very much promoted, and body shape and weight is very much commented on in an unrealistic, idealistic and negative view.

"Social media can be beneficial, and there's been a couple of examples of how it's been used quite effectively to bring people's awareness to food and weight. But in general, the current view of social media is that it's not very helpful as it tends to promote an idealistic view and also creates a forum for a lot of negativity."

"It's like when people get Fitbits. It's easy to become obsessed," Lewis added. "Anything that takes a lot of time and is anxiety-provoking is not good for you."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636. For specific information or support relating to eating disorders call Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.