When Healthy Eating becomes an Obsession

How long has it been since you last saw an advertisement for food or a diet that promised you everything you ever wanted by eliminating an ingredient, a food group, or following a set of rules? I’d say you’re lucky if you can make it more than a day without these messages being communicated to you in one way or another. Everyone’s different version of “healthy eating” is all over the place, whether it’s fad diets, cleanses, fat-free this, no-sugar-added that, calorie counting, or whatever new product is on the market. These things are not inherently negative; it is always good to be aware of what you’re putting in your body and trying to give it the best fuel possible. However, this constant shifting awareness of “good” and “bad” foods is absolutely not positive. Neither is the cultural expectation – particularly for women – that you always strive for weight loss only by following some rulebook or cutting out certain foods. Today, food has taken on a weight and a morality in our minds that it did not always have.


These diets tend to begin innocently: a New Year’s resolution, preparing  for swimsuit season, or just wanting to be healthier. Sometimes they stay innocent, and when the goal is met, you are able to let go of the rules and continue living your life. However, other times these goals turn into obsessions. The dictionary definition of an obsession is “a persistent idea or impulse that continually forces its way into consciousness.” How often do you think about food, nutrition, or your diet? Is it an occasional, passing thought or do you spend hours planning and thinking about what you will eat later in the day or the week, or mulling over what you’ve already eaten? You may not realize how much these thoughts have consumed your day and your brain, but you may actually have an unhealthy obsession with health.

When you don’t follow your diet or your rules perfectly, do you give yourself grace or is there immediate self-loathing and guilt? This is a sign that food has begun informing your identity, when it has the power to change, sometimes drastically, your self-esteem and worth!  Just as food is not inherently good or bad, eating or not eating certain foods does not make you good or bad or change who you are, nor should it affect the way you view yourself.

Another sign that food has become an obsession is isolation. In most cultures, food is a sort of social bonding experience. Sharing a meal together can be a very meaningful aspects of relationships and getting to know one another. But sometimes this can be scary, because what if you are tempted to eat something bad or to break a rule? It feels safer to just stay at home and eat there, because you don’t have to watch people eat the things you don’t eat and don’t have to worry about being tempted. And so you slowly begin isolating yourself.

Finally, if food has become an obsession, it’s likely that you are using it to manage some sort of anxiety or strong emotion. You may be seeking an escape, or control, or whatever helps manage these feelings. This typically means that food has a great deal of control over your emotions. You may overeat when you feel sad, and then compensate later with restricting to feel in control and manage your guilt. Emotions are fickle and can sometimes seem uncontrollable, and so your relationship with food may become volatile and ironically a source of anxiety and loss of control.

So now what?

If reading through this has made you think that perhaps food or dieting has become an obsession for you, you’re probably wondering what happens next. This pattern can feel almost inescapable. I would say the first step would be to begin working through the underlying emotions and anxiety that you are using food to cope with. Find a counselor (I’d love to volunteer!) or someone to start digging down and figuring out what purpose this obsession serves – it almost always has a very real goal. The next step would be to practice flexibility and exposure to foods that have been deemed off limits or bad. You may eat a food and then take time to consider whether this really changed anything about you as a person. The goal in all of this is to reach a point where you are able to eat intuitively: basing decisions on how food makes you feel physically rather than emotionally, and eating in response to physical cues rather than emotional ones. And ultimately, the goal is for you to realize that your identity is not just “the person who eats healthy” or “the person who doesn’t eat sweets.” You are so much more than the food you eat, and now is a perfect time to start getting to know yourself!

Has your focus on healthy eating become an obsession? Call Laura Lanier to talk about how find balance and flexibility again. 940-222-8703Laura Lanier Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern

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