Whether it's dreaming about the lasagna you're going to order at dinner tonight, planning your next home-cooked meal or considering if you should have a second chocolate chip cookie, all of us have thoughts of food throughout the day.
Sometimes referred to as "food noise," this internal chatter about food choices and eating in general is usually important; it sets off a gut-brain reaction telling your body that it's hungry or full, for example.
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But for some people, food noise can be too loud, accompanied by negative thoughts like guilt or shame, and "can be difficult to silence," says Keri Gans, RDN, a nutritionist based in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet.
Below, more on food noise, including why some people experience it more than others, how to turn down the volume if you believe it's a problem for you and why medications like Ozempic and Wegovy are being used to dampen constant food thoughts.
What Is 'Food Noise?'
While thinking about food is normal and necessary for human survival, some people experience intrusive food-related thoughts that have a negative effect on their quality of life.
"The phrase 'food noise' has increasingly been used to describe an excessive preoccupation with food," says Anthea Levi, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and founder of the virtual private practice ALIVE+WELL Nutrition. "This can look like constantly thinking about what or when you will eat next, what or how much food you ate at your last meal or hyper-fixating on cravings."
Food noise isn't inherently problematic, experts stress. After all, if you never paid attention to hunger cues or planned balanced meals, you'd miss out on crucial nutrients and be at risk of malnutrition.
Nor is it a bad thing to simply enjoy food — and many people find joy in thinking about upcoming meals in addition to actually cooking and eating them.
"When we don't consider which foods we love or are in the mood for, eating can become a less joyful and fulfilling experience," Levi notes.
Still, it's possible for food-related thoughts to veer into unhelpful territory. Some people have all-consuming food noise that can become unhealthy or a source of intense stress. While this can result in overeating, it's just as likely that someone with loud food noise is overly restricting foods.
"Oftentimes, 'food noise' is a symptom of an eating disorder or disordered eating," says Kim Dennis, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and certified eating disorders specialist at SunCloud Health in Illinois.
So how can you tell if your internal food noise is too loud? Being overly restrictive about what you can or can't eat is a big red flag, Dr. Dennis says.
Someone struggling with disordered eating and experiencing loud food noise might have strict food rules ("cutting out" entire food groups, for example), engage in excessive mental math around food (such as meticulously counting calories consumed) and generally over-focus on thinness and weight.
Equally concerning is if food noise consistently interferes with your daily life.
"If you're struggling to complete daily tasks because you're distracted by thoughts about your next or last meal or your cravings," Levi says, "or you're unable to feel present at meals with loved ones because you're too preoccupied with thoughts about food on the table, you may be dealing with a high level of food noise."
Why Some People Experience More 'Food Noise' Than Others
Anyone can struggle with constant food-related thoughts, but some people are more likely to experience them. Your risk might be higher if:
- You have certain medical conditions. An insatiable appetite can be a symptom of both hyperthyroidism and diabetes, for example. Known as polyphagia or hyperphagia, per the Cleveland Clinic, this intense hunger can cause someone to feel consumed by thoughts of food. People struggling with anxiety disorders, stress or atypical depression may also experience polyphagia. And for those with diabetes in particular, "insulin resistance can drive up cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods, which may also intensify the food noise some people hear in their heads," Levi adds.
- Your diet is overly restrictive. More food noise is often found in people who are constantly dieting, Gans says. Many people think if they lose weight and eat less, they'll feel better and will experience fewer intrusive food thoughts. However, "one of the things that we know puts people at risk for developing disordered eating and eating disorders is an over-focus on weight loss and dieting," Dr. Dennis says.
- You grew up thinking about food in an unhealthy way. "The level of food noise you hear in your head can have deep roots," Levi says. For example, it may be particularly hard to silence if you were raised in a household where family members constantly monitored your portion sizes and commented on weight. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, food noise may be an ongoing challenge if your family struggled with food security when you were a child.
- You're taking certain medications. People taking antidepressants, bipolar medications and beta blockers.) may have increased appetite and possible weight gain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- You're stressed. It's been said time and time again, but getting enough sleep and doing your best to manage your stress levels can have positive effects on your overall health, including managing food noise. When you're stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which studies have linked to weight gain, per Harvard Health Publishing. "High stress can hike up hunger and promote food cravings, both of which can turn up the volume on food noise for some people," explains Levi.
- You're struggling with disordered eating. Much has been said about how semaglutide drugs like Wegovy and Ozempic help "quiet" food noise to aid weight loss (more on this below). But food noise is also a hallmark sign of eating disorders, from anorexia nervosa to binge eating disorder.
How to Turn Down the Volume on 'Food Noise'
If you've heard "food noise" mentioned before, there's a very good chance it's been in connection with semaglutide medications such as Ozempic, Rybelsus or Wegovy.
Two of these drugs (Ozempic injections and Rybelsus tablets) are approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to help lower blood sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes. Wegovy, also an injection, is approved to help manage weight for people ages 12 and older who have obesity or overweight and have weight-related medical problems.
People taking these drugs report that they effectively silence food noise, reducing appetite and making it easier to lose weight. As a result, "off-label" use of Ozempic for weight loss rather than diabetes has skyrocketed.
While Ozempic is appropriate for some people with type 2 diabetes, experts caution about its off-label use for weight loss. Not only are there many unknowns surrounding semaglutide drugs — they're relatively new and have little research to support them, for starters — but if you're taking them specifically to silence food noise and lose weight, you won't really be addressing the problem.
"We know that if you're on [Ozempic and Wegovy] and have to go off, you're going to gain weight back," says Dr. Dennis. "The food thoughts will return."
Instead, experts recommend taking steps to improve your overall relationship with food. Here are a few strategies to try:
1. Get Curious
It can help to really ask yourself why you're thinking about food so often, Levi says. For example, have you noticed constant food thoughts ramping up after you started a new diet?
"This might tell us that you've been in too large of a caloric deficit and your brain is up-regulating food thoughts as a way to protect you," she says.
In this scenario, your body is actually trying to save you by forcing you to think more about food so you eat more.
2. Stop Restricting Foods
Occasionally indulging in a less-healthy favorite food is better than telling yourself you can never have it, experts say.
"The more you deprive yourself of foods you love, the more you may think about and want them," says Gans.
This is partly why so many diets fail. Research — including a September 2020 paper in Cureus — has found that food restriction often causes people to become more fixated on food, which can lead to psychological consequences like depression as well as more weight gain in the long run.
3. Think Adding In, Not Cutting Out
Similarly, instead of focusing on cutting "unhealthy" foods out — a common practice among people with loud food noise — reframe your thinking to focus on what you should add to your plate.
"When people focus on adding in rather than taking out certain foods (for example, adding in vegetables, fruits and whole grains rather than categorizing 'good' or 'bad' foods), I think they generally find more sustainable results," Dr. Dennis says.
4. Seek Support
"If you have food noise and it's interfering in your life, that's something I would recommend getting checked out," Dr. Dennis says.
A credentialed professional such as a registered dietitian and/or a therapist can help you determine why you're hearing so much food noise and practice healthy strategies to lower the volume.
5. Try Meditation Techniques
In addition to meditation, yoga, deep breathing and similar strategies "may help you refocus when your brain goes into that food noise zone," says Gans.
6. Practice Intuitive Eating
A 2020 study in Eating and Weight Disorders that followed participants for eight years found intuitive eating to be associated with a lower risk of a number of unhealthy behaviors, including binge eating and extreme weight-control habits, as well as lower odds of high depressive symptoms and low self-esteem.
7. Embrace an Overall Healthy Lifestyle
Instead of focusing on changing your body, think about what you can do to improve your overall health and self-care habits so they bring you more joy, Dr. Dennis says. For example, maybe tennis makes you happier than logging miles on the treadmill.
Discovering the root cause of your food noise can take time, but the result can help you develop a healthier relationship with food for life.
"We all have a limited amount of time," Dr. Dennis says. "When you think about how you really want to be spending your time and what you want to be doing with the time you do have, do you want to be using your brainpower to obsess about what you just ate?"
- NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “4 Fast Facts about the Gut-Brain Connection”
- Cleveland Clinic: "Hyperthyroidism"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Polyphagia (Hyperphagia)"
- National Library of Medicine: "Semaglutide Injection"
- Mayo Clinic: "Can antidepressants cause weight gain?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Can beta blockers cause weight gain?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Do all bipolar medications cause weight gain?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Why stress causes people to overeat"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Medications Containing Semaglutide Marketed for Type 2 Diabetes or Weight Loss"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Psychological Consequences of Food Restriction"
- National Library of Medicine: "Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good?"
- National Eating Disorders Association: "What Does Intuitive Eating Mean?"
- National Library of Medicine: "Intuitive Eating Longitudinally Predicts Better Psychological Health and Lower Use of Disordered Eating Behaviors: Findings from EAT 2010–2018"