Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

The Think-Free Diet

How thinking too much about food can make you lose your mind.

As an eating behavior researcher I spend an abnormally large amount of time thinking about food.

If I'm not reading articles about the addictive qualities of energy-dense diets I can usually be found writing about the influence of parental feeding styles on children's eating behavior, getting caught up in spirited seminar discussions about the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup, or choosing high-calorie foods to show people in fMRI scanners (nope, I have no idea how I ended up in this strange career either...).

And of course, quite independent of my chosen vocation, I anticipate and enjoy a good feed as much as the next person: Few things make me happier than sinking my teeth into a mouth-watering cube of manchego at the Westside market cheese counter, sampling a friend's latest batch of home-made pickles, happening upon surprisingly good French-Vietnamese appetizers in NYC's west village, or devouring an unfeasibly large plate of my mum's delicious oven-roasted vegetables (yum).

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But despite the many wondrous pleasures afforded by food and the essential body-sustaining and nourishing properties of consumption (I have yet to meet someone who can survive without it...), evidence suggests that, unless you're an obesity scientist, thinking toooo much about food can be distracting, brain-draining - and in some cases a potent recipe for unhappiness.

For example, obese people seeking treatment to lose weight often report being preoccupied with thoughts of food. Thinking about restraining one's eating is known to use up glucose and self-control resources, leaving less available to deal with other tasks. Dieting women perform worse on a number of cognitive tests. And eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are typified by misery-inducing obsessions with food. There's even been a recent move to christen a new eating disorder - orthorexia, an unhealthy fixation with healthy eating.

I'm not saying that one should never think about food - eating is an essential human pleasure and it makes sense that we should want to apply our mental resources to seek out the best diet we can, then enjoy eating it. But on the other hand, thinking about food all the time is not necessarily the most fun or useful way to spend one's life (especially if you're not paid to do it...).

So if you do feel yourself obsessing about food - either eating it or not eating it - there are various tricks you can try.

One is simple mental distraction - when children are offered marshmallows but told to resist eating them, those who deliberately thought about something else were more successful. Of course this doesn't always work - for example, desires to eat certain foods are sometimes too strong to be ignored, and attempting to repress them just makes them worse. In these cases it might be worth trying out a touch of mindfulness - a Buddhism-inspired idea involving focusing wholeheartedly on the feeling of craving - or guilt about craving - without resisting it or acting on it.

And if neither of these do the trick the best bet might be to escape your food-related thoughts by doing something that doesn't involve any kind of thinking at all, like going for a walk, having a good gossip session with a friend - or going to see the latest inane superhero movie. I recently thoroughly enjoyed watching this one and can guarantee that at absolutely no point in proceedings did an intelligent thought - food-related or otherwise - even contemplate crossing my mind.

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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