Food focus shows up in day to day life for many people, especially those with a history of dieting or restriction. A few characteristics of a food focused mindset are always thinking about your next meal, avoiding events to avoid the food, difficulty focusing as thoughts drift to food, fixating on foods you “can’t have,” using food as a motivator, reward, or punishment, and labeling foods as good or bad. These thoughts are frequent and usually have nothing to do with actual hunger.
These thought patterns can result from a multitude of factors. For example, chronic restriction or dieting, preoccupation with weight or body image, parental impact, media conditioning, perfectionism, hormonal adaptations, and the need for control could all contribute to the propensity to focus on food over everything else.
For me, my food focus was due to years of severe restriction and it always got worse this time of year. I would start thinking about holiday meals weeks in advance. How was I going to avoid food? What events could I skip (again, to avoid the food)? When would I workout to prepare and burn off what I ate? I’d go into events upset and agitated from starving myself all day. I’d choose the “healthy options” or make altered recipes, eat toddler sized portions, and skip dessert. It never ended well. Even if I ate what I deemed to be “safe,” I still left the meal and event sad, hungry, and regretting letting the food dictate my experience.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone here. There are so many things to enjoy about this time of year. It is meant to be a time of celebration, togetherness, gratitude, and giving. Yet, when we are food focused it is easy to overlook those things and stay preoccupied with the food. Comments from clients and friends like “I am so anxious about all the parties I have coming up,” or “I am nervous about going home for Christmas because of all the food” make a food focus become glaringly obvious.
If you feel like this applies to you, first of all, give yourself a little grace. A lot of these thought patterns are conditioned in us and happen without us even knowing. Second, know that it doesn’t have to always be this way. While there are no “one size fits all” fixes here, there are some things you can do to ease these thoughts in the moment and prevent them from coming up in the future.
Make a Plan
I know it seems counter productive to think ahead about food in order to avoid food focus. However, creating a plan for the social events you have can actually reduce the amount of time you spend thinking about food. If we do not plan, we often feel frantic and stressed about what we should eat, just grabbing whatever is easiest or just not eating at all. Creating a plan lets our brain rest and trust that we know what we are doing.
Bring the Fun
Food comes with memories, emotions, and pleasure. This is ten fold with holiday foods we have been eating since childhood. This makes it really easy for food to be the focal point of any holiday event. However, it does not have to be. It can be part of a larger experience. Find an activity for your family to do, bring a new board game, create a challenge, or get outside to help remove the focus from food! Whenever there is snow on the ground, my family plays touch football (which inevitably ends as tackle football).
“Where ever you are, be all there”. When your thoughts start to drift to food, come back to where you are. Ground yourself with some belly breaths. Remember you only ever have the present moment. Find something in that moment to be grateful for and shift your attention.
Structured Flexibility vs. Restriction
This one is definitely not a quick fix but so many of our food thoughts come from the “you always want what you can’t have” effect. When you practice a highly restrictive diet, label foods as good or bad, and aim to keep intake as low as possible at all times that “can’t have” list is a mile long.
Shifting from a restrictive mindset to one that allows flexibility to have those previously “off the table foods” takes time, effort, and is something we prioritize in our coaching. By creating the structure of a consistently nutrient dense diet conducive to our goals, the impact of social events and holidays feel (and is) less dramatic. Furthermore, by removing those restrictions, the desire often subsides.
Remember What Matters
This feels so cliché but it’s true. When you look back on your life, what to you want to remember? The stories that were told around the table? The memories of your mom’s smile as she opened your gift? Or the time spent worry about the calories in that damn corn casserole? This is one day of the thousands of days you will live and tomorrow you can get right back to your routine. For this day, for this moment, focus on what and who really matters.