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Food for Thought: Is Your Meal Planning Out of Control?

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As a healthy eater, avid cook, or even someone starting a new diet, it’s normal to spend some time thinking about your next meal (or the meal after that). After all, a girl’s gotta plan. And who can scroll through Instagram without being bombarded by yummy looking dishes and the subsequent “how can I make that” thoughts? But if it feels like you're spending more and more time thinking about food, you might be wondering where the line is between normal and obsessive.

“You do need to spend some time thinking about food,” says Creating Peace With Food nutrition consultant Cristen Harris, Ph.D., R.D.N., an associate professor at Bastyr University. And though it’s tough to put a number on it, she says it’s healthy for food to take up 25 percent or fewer of your thoughts. “It’s good to plan meals and spend some time thinking about grocery shopping so you’re prepared to cook and packing food for the day so you don’t get stuck.”

However, if you’re getting inflexible about food (for example, you freak out if you leave your planned lunch in the fridge at home) or start to obsess when you go off-plan, that’s a sign of trouble. “If you’re berating yourself or feeling guilty, that’s a hint that your thinking has become unhealthy,” she says. (Read about one writer's fight with orthorexia: How Healthy Habits Turned Into an Eating Disorder.)

You should also take note if your food thoughts become intrusive to the rest of your life, says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., author of Emotional Eating. So if you can’t focus on your work because you’re thinking about what you’ll have for lunch, or have trouble paying attention to your friends at a party because you’re berating yourself for too many slices of pizza, realize that those thoughts are veering into worrisome (and unhelpful) territory. (Is Being Neurotic About Food Unhealthy?)

“Diets often deprive people of their favorite foods,” says Abramson. And when you eliminate something completely (like ice cream), it actually increases the likelihood that you’ll spend time preoccupied with thoughts of it. Images of food (like advertisements, social media snapshots, etc.) can also trigger food thoughts, but they’ll have less of an impact if you’re not ravenous or restricting yourself, says Harris. Your food thoughts might also be placeholder for other, more complicated ones. In the same way that people eat as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions, they can also think about food to avoid obsessing about something else, she says.

So what to do if too much of your brain space is taken up by calorie counts, menus, and food porn? Talking to a psychologist or a nutritionist who specializes in disordered eating can be helpful, says Harris. She also recommends journaling, either noting what you eat and why, as well as your food-related thinking, or free-flow writing when you’re experiencing extreme thinking. (You can also try writing out positive or alternative thoughts.)

And since environmental cues (a cookie jar on the counter, for example) can trigger food thoughts, altering your surroundings to reduce those triggers can also help, says Abramson. He also advises trying to distract yourself rather than trying to turn off your stream of consciousness. When you tell yourself not to think about something, it’s all you can think about, he says. So instead of trying to squash your thoughts, put on your headphones or turn to an engaging book.

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