Obsessing About Food May Be a Warning Sign for Eating Disorders

Seda Ebrahimi, director of the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center, says constant thoughts about food could be harmful.

It probably feels like second nature to check the nutrition label on a snack before digging in, or to log your breakfast in a calorie counting app. And in many ways, those behaviors are healthy—until they go too far.

Seda Ebrahimi, director of the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center, says obsessional thinking—in other words, constantly thinking about food and weight—is an element of nearly every eating disorder. There’s even a name for being obsessed with healthful eating, orthorexia nervosa, though it is not yet recognized as a clinical diagnosis.

“There’s a lot of time and energy that’s spent on thinking about food, how much the person ate, what the impact of that eating is going to be on weight, thinking about ways they can burn those calories,” Ebrahimi says of obsessive eating. “It’s a component of all the eating disorders.”

Ebrahimi says constant anxiety about food is common even before it reaches the severity of a clinical eating disorder. “We live in a culture that’s preoccupied with thoughts of food and weight and dieting,” she says. “Unfortunately, weight has become a normative discontent for all women, regardless of age. ”

And, Ebrahimi says, fitness trackers and calorie counters may be adding to the problem. “I think it certainly increases someone’s obsessional thinking,” she says. “It’s one thing to be an informed consumer, to be aware of the caloric values of food or the nutritional values of food, and it’s another thing to constantly be thinking about food and weight.”

So when is constant meal planning or calorie counting grounds for concern? Essentially, Ebrahimi says thinking about eating enough that it burdens somebody’s life—becoming paralyzed by reading labels in grocery stores, thinking about eating too much to pay attention at work or school, avoiding social situations where there will be unhealthy food—is grounds for concern. 

To avoid reaching that point, Ebrahimi recommends staying cognizant of unrealistic portrayals of weight standards. “Media literacy is very important, being aware that what we’re seeing in the media are probably not realistic images of women,” she says. “I think becoming more savvy about what they’re absorbing from the culture and the media would make them more realistic about what they should expect someone their height and their age to weigh.”

In the end, she says, avoiding obsessional thinking is all about self-acceptance. “I think,” she says, “anxiety about food diminishes when someone is more comfortable with who they are and the way they look.”