Given that food is a necessary part of our everyday life, it's natural to daydream about the next meal or snack. While some people think about food only minutes before eating, others are constantly preoccupied with food thoughts via planning, cooking, or needing hours to consume a meal. Such constant preoccupation can become frustrating. What happens when people purposefully try to suppress thoughts about food? A new study examined the relationship between binge eating and food thought suppression.
The study, conducted by researchers at Yale University, was released online this month in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry. The researchers asked a group of obese men and women with binge eating disorder to complete questionnaires about their eating habits and attempts to avoid thinking about foods.
Usually when we try to avoid thinking about something, we do just the opposite. While you read the rest of this post, don’t think about a pink elephant – odds are high that you just visualized a pink elephant. That’s a classic psychology example and it’s interesting to think about how it applies to eating disorders.
In order to measure attempts at suppresing thoughts about food, the researchers used a specific questionnaire, the Food Suppression Thought Inventory. Sample items included:
"Sometimes I stay busy just to keep thoughts of food from intruding on my mind"
"I wish I could stop thinking of certain foods"
"There are images about food that come to my mind that I cannot erase"
Would higher levels of thought suppression be related to more frequent binge eating or a higher BMI? This wasn’t the case, according to the study findings. However, the sample was restricted only to obese people who engaged in binge eating at least twice a week. If we looked at a broader sample of people including adults with varied weights and different levels of eating disorder symptoms, we might see stronger correlations between food thought suppression and binge eating frequency or BMI. In fact, earlier studies did find such results (here and here).
Men and women in the study engaged in similar levels of food thought suppression. However, men (but not women) who dieted more as adults tended to suppress food thoughts more often. Barnes and her colleagues suggest that “the more time someone spends dieting, the more likely they are to report attempting to avoid food related thoughts over time.”
How do the study findings fit with what you’ve experienced or seen in terms of people trying to avoid thinking about food?
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology
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