7 Ways to Deal with Food Anxiety

7-Ways-to-Overcome-Food-Anxiety-320x240People frequently wax sentimental for what they call “simpler” days—presumably times when the rules were fewer and clearer, when choices weren’t so overwhelming, when demands were less and common sense was more prevalent. Eating, of course, is no exception to this. If you listen to the dominant voices in the social-media-marketing-medical culture, it’s enough to ruin your dinner and make you feel guilty for skipping breakfast (Don’t buy the guilt trip). We’re fed contradictory studies, warned of the latest threats lurking in our food supply, told every bite squashes the life out of another ecosystem, and led through fluorescent-lit warehouses filled with more food options and label claims than one person should ever be reasonably expected to handle. It’s exhausting, frustrating and on certain days defeating. So what’s a reasonable approach in an age when anxiety too often overtakes enjoyment of eating?

Of course, the problem here isn’t the intention for healthy eating itself. In our primal ancestors’ time, healthy eating was a thoroughly mindless endeavor. No one knew anything about nutritional science in the Paleolithic Era, but it didn’t matter. Their consideration never wandered past the straightforward (albeit dramatic) question, “Is it poisonous?” Beyond that single inquiry (which usually offered quick feedback), bad choices didn’t exist.

Unfortunately for us modern folks, we don’t have the luxury of tapping into the food of our immediate environs without at least some degree of reflection.

We have the burden of choice and the burden of (often conflicting) information. From here, reflection can turn to chronic, tiring, or even oppressive deliberation—hence, the anxiety, the excessive worry or unease about the outcome or impact of what should just be a simple food choice.

Is it any wonder we may feel so much apprehension with the call to make every choice smart, informed (and then re-informed), socially-conscious, environmentally conscious, fair trade provided, humanely sourced, forward-thinking, allergy-friendly, coupon savvy, good fat proportioned, antioxidant rich, and lean tissue supporting, pesticide-, hormone-, and additive-free, etc.? Unless we’re farming, raising and foraging our own with Grok standards in mind, we’re bound to screw it up on at least a few levels.

So, what then would sanity look like in this scenario? How do we recover enough mental space to feel some degree of ease, not to mention pleasure in eating again? Try on a few of these modest proposals.

1. Reclaim eating for sustenance

It’s common to talk about “eating to lose weight,” “eating to fight illness,” “eating to gain muscle,” “eating to prevent aging.” Let’s put the truth back in that, shall we?

You’re eating to live—to survive, to allow your body enough nutrient and energy input to keep you alive and functioning. Each day, that is your main goal. Very simple in fact. That said, you can eat toward nourishing ongoing physical vitality as your primary goal. You can eat with a nutritional emphasis on building muscle mass. You can eat in such a way that prioritizes optimum metabolic functioning and fat burning.

And, no, it’s not just semantics. It’s mindset, which makes all the difference when you’re talking about emotional perception.

If you’ve been feeling wrapped around the goal of eating “for” anything but living, take a step back and reframe the picture. Each morning, each meal, make a point of telling yourself you’re eating to live, to enjoy time on this earth. The rest is Primal gravy.

2. Don’t politicize every choice you make

The morality of eating these days can careen a decently sensitive and conscientious person off a cliff. How many labels and certifications does it take to satisfy a Portlandia standard? From what I can tell, the number keeps growing.

Do I understand the usefulness of these standards? You bet. Organic and pastured offer in most cases substantive health benefit. Heritage breeds of produce and livestock may be more nutrient-rich. And I believe, as I’ve said before, prioritizing environmentally sustainable, humane farming practices wherever it’s practical. I make personal and business choices in keeping with that principle whenever I reasonably can.

But I don’t get wrapped up in questions of morality every time I put a bite of food in my mouth. I don’t deal in guilt or play a game of self-reproach. I view social, environmental and humane choices around food as interests and not inviolable prerequisites.

3. Dump the idea of perfection

I came up with the 80/20 rule long ago because I didn’t want the Primal Blueprint to ever be seen as a pursuit of perfectionism. Food is important. Good food choices can help you claim good health and lifelong vitality, but parsing out those exact choices, structuring intakes with precision, giving yourself no room for choice in the moment, adhering to the principles with exactitude sounds like a miserable way to live.

A short-term bout of Primal rigor can gain you momentum in your fat loss or energy reclamation, but there’s no need to equate Primal eating with meticulousness. I consider it one of the best attributes of the PB that it’s a simple, adaptable blueprint that offers plenty of space for everyday living and regular imperfection.

4. Don’t dramatize your missteps

In truth, some days people leave the “20” of the 80/20 principle in the dust. Maybe it started out as a well-intentioned gesture toward moderation. Or maybe it was always going to be a dive off the deep end. Whatever led to the “misstep,” there’s no reason to dramatize it. It happened. Don’t give more energy to it by moaning in regret or bewailing the slip.

Cheats (if we’re going to call them that) aren’t catastrophic. Long-term, repetitive behaviors are.

5. Scrutinize your motives

I’ve seen plenty of people over the years lose themselves in anxiety over their eating because they put their identities in their choices. Maybe they feel invested in a self-righteousness or perfectionistic compulsion that goes back psychic decades. Or maybe they’re distracting themselves from other behaviors or unhappiness they don’t want to own. They impose excessive control and experience emotional anxiety with food while some other part of life feels wholly overwhelming. It’s a coping mechanism, a grounding means to feel security or authority in their lives.

This is no way to live. Clean eating is a great action step, and real vitality feels great. That said, health isn’t a panacea, and it won’t ever cover for a life that doesn’t serve you.

6. Get back to the actual experience

Stop telling a story about what you’re eating and start feeling yourself eating it. It sounds so obvious, and yet this obsessive story-telling, script running, relentless monologuing is exactly what we do.

Forget the health story of what’s in front of you. Forget its sourcing. Forget how somebody on Food Network would judge it. Forget what your coworkers or mother-in-law would say about it. Cut off all language, and just be with your food the way a young child is.

Exchange words for sensation. Forgo judgment for mindfulness. Give yourself over to the sensory experience of what you are putting in your body. Smell it. Feel the texture. Take it in visually. Get in your own body’s responses to it.

7. Be grateful for every bite you take

It’s not a huge step from mindfully experiencing your food to being grateful for it in the moment. When we drop the story about something, we can finally be present with it. There’s a lightness to the moment. We’re open to enjoyment of it. How could we not be grateful for the chance to nourish our bodies?

If anxiety is fear of outcomes or impact, it has us in the future. If it’s unease about where something comes from, it has us in the past. Gratitude flows most strongly from the present. When we’re here in the now, when our minds are in the same time as the meal in front of us, we can at last enjoy that meal in peace.

Thanks for reading, everybody. Has this kind of anxiety ever been part of your story? What changes helped you? I’d love to hear your comments and additions here. Have a great end to the week.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “7 Ways to Deal with Food Anxiety”

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  1. Useful stuff here. For me, I need to scrutinize my motives more. I get hung up on eating and apple vs. eating a handful of nuts and seeds. I’ll vacillate back and forth until I make a decision. Then, I’ll agonize over the decision, believing I’ve made the wrong one. Thanks for the thoughts.

    1. Getting hung up over an apple versus a handful of nuts is definitely better than agonizing over a choice between an apple and a cupcake. But I get what you’re saying. It’s what makes this such an excellent article.

      Getting hung up over everything we eat is, IMO, a form of OCD. Some Paleo adherents sneer at 80/20 and insist on 100 percent or nothing. They measure carbs, obsess over nutrients, and refuse to eat anything that isn’t organic and didn’t come from a local non-GMO farm. A few folks thrive on such an approach, but for many of us it’s just too exhausting and takes all the joy out of eating. It’s possible to find something wrong with literally everything that’s remotely edible if you look hard enough. At that point it becomes not about what one eats but rather what’s gone out of control in their head.

      1. Love your response Shary. It totally is a form of OCD. I can’t seem to accept 80/20, I’ve been eating about 80/20 primal for a while but haven’t considered myself primal because it wasn’t 100 percent. It really is exhausting to be that way with food. For me I tend toward an all or nothing mindset. Every time I read about veganism, I want to go all in (for ethical reasons), yet in the same day I’ll read about ketosis and want to cut my carbs drastically to finally experience energy again (8 months pregnant and tired of being tired).
        I’m one of those people who would do best if someone told me exactly what to eat and do and planned everything out for me so I wouldn’t stress myself out trying to get everything perfect.

        1. Easy solution, write yourself a meal plan one week in advance…. Otherwise just lighten up, eat healthily the best way you know how and enjoy life. It’s too short to agonise over some of the issues you raised above.

          1. I agree, definitely need to work on enjoying life more… I have one meal plan because I eat the same exact things every day because that’s easiest to plan for with my budget so no problems there. It’s trying to get variety that I stress out about, but probably shouldn’t. Thanks for your response.

  2. It’s funny because I didn’t have food anxiety before starting primal, in December 2010 (age 21)… I love the primal lifestyle, but it’s true that I am sometimes anxious about food, which I was not at all before my 21 years old. But I also learnt so many useful information… so kind of double edged, I should work on this!! 🙂

  3. Am I sleeping enough, eating the right foods, exercising right / enough, relaxing enough, using proper form when I play tennis, using the right kind of cleaners at home, maintaining my property well enough, could I be doing better in my career, could I be a better father, husband, son, friend, improve my attitude, my spirituality, give more to charity, do more for my community … guilt guilt guilt. 🙂

    1. wow man, take it easy on yourself…eat as healthy as you can, realise that eating badly wont kill you, do the best you can do at that particular moment in time and never feel guilty, play the long game. learn to say no, learn to be selfish, learn to say no, learn to say no to 3rd parties/charities/volunteer org.s/community efforts etc etc so you can be the best person for your wife/kids etc.Join the discussion

      1. Thanks for the great advice dave! Yeah, was being a little sarcastic, but then again not really LOL.

  4. I have less food anxiety than ever eating this way. I just ask myself “Will eating this make me feel crappy later?” In the case of grain products, the answer is usually yes, so I pass on the food and seek out better fare.

    1. Old Hank, I think you just solved my food anxiety issues. I am definitly going to be asking myself that question next time I start to complicate my life with food decisions.

  5. There are times when I have had anxiety about food that makes it difficult to make a decision. Love all of these tips, especially the last two. Enjoy the actual experience of eating. And be grateful!! And these tips apply not just to food, but to life:)

  6. I like that…eat with gratitude and enjoy your food. I experience zero food anxiety, since I started following Primal Blueprint. I feel amazing! I have lost 27 lbs since mid-June. I know with certainty that the rest will come off in time. I’m looking forward to sharing my success story when I get to my goal. I don’t obsess about food anymore either. Old Hank has it right, just ask yourself will eating this make me feel like crap? Then you realize it’s just not worth it, when there are safer choices to make. Instead of cake I’ll eat an apple with almond nut butter or macadamia nuts.

    1. “Just be with your food…” Love that phrase. It really says a lot when you get right down to it. Mindless eating is often a case of gobbling whatever is handy just to keep the stomach from complaining, which, of course, misses the whole idea of good nutrition. I think it’s much easier to eat healthy when we’re paying attention to what we cook and eat.

  7. 8. Stop reading Mark’s Daily Apple for a while and when you come back take everything with a big grain of salt.

    This in my favorite healthy lifestyle blog by far, but my gosh, it’s also a big trap for anyone with food anxiety or eating disorders. That’s just the nature of any resource that is hyper focused on food.

    For example, back in the pre-internet days we had a new coworker at my job. Now, we always had homemade snacks around, talked about food and bantered about of favorite food and of course discussed nutrition. Little did we know that our new coworker was a recovering bulimic. Well, all that food talk, even though it was mostly positive, caused her to relapse. I only knew because her parents contacted me to clue me on what was happening at home.

    Every week this blog is filled with scary stuff on just about anything health and fitness related.

    Dear Mark, I like to walk along the beach every day, am I at risk of chronic cardio?

    Dear Mark, I can’t do sprints due to being a double amputee, am I doomed to bone loss and diabetes?

    Dear Mark, my Dad’s funeral is this week and I know they won’t have primal approved food…should i just skip it…and how do I detox if I end up going and eating a bagel?

    If you internalize it you will probably be quite unhappy and spend way too much time worrying if you are doing everything “right”.

    Again, love MDA,but all this focus on health is not very healthy on a daily basis.

    That sounds like a paradox, but as we all know from a previous post, it’s not 😉

    1. Once again, Clay, your comments are right on the money!
      I have to admit that I recognize many of your “examples” from previous posts on this site. Leaves my head spinning at times.

    2. Sorry Clay but I have to have my “daily” MDA fix. Otherwise it would be MIA … Mark’s Intermittent Apple.

  8. I needed this article. I go through so much food anxiety. I have a limited budget so I rewrite my monthly food list probably 20 times a month, constantly changing this or that to have more omega 3 or more calcium, etc, etc. I try to squeeze every damn thing I’ve learned about nutrition into my small budget, then worry about everything extra I need while I’m pregnant then try to squeeze all that in too, and it just doesn’t work out. I get so stressed over this every month. This article helped me in that I just need to stick to unprocessed foods and I’ll most likely be fine. Most other pregnant women in this country are eating complete crap and junk food diets, and still having healthy babies. I was one of those pregnant women actually, my last pregnancy was full of fast food, chips, fries, hotpockets, and all kinds of other mess, and my baby came out super healthy (and I had a natural labor). I need to keep these things in mind and know that my body knows what it’s doing, so getting an exact amount of calcium or DHA every single day isn’t something to worry about…
    Just typing this out stressed me out…

  9. I experience food anxiety with almost every meal! Counting macronutrients is what gets me. As a D1 soccer player who also does Crossfit 2-3x a week I get pretty hungry and always seem to eat more protein/calories than I’d like. I also have a bad habit of binging on nut-butter after dinner with an apple or banana. Not sure if this is because I am hungry or have an psychological dependence/addiction. Anyway, at the end of the day I grieve at my failure to meet my desired Fitday numbers. I find myself in constant fear of weight gain and the action of eating more and more stressful than enjoyable.

    1. Perhaps you should just give in to your appetite and see what happens. Your post seems to indicate goals that are abstractions based on idealized numbers. But what if your target numbers are wrong? You may be stressing out over meeting goals that are unrelated to what may actually happen.

      You’re obviously fit and active, so if going with the flow yields excess fat, you could easily adjust and bring that back down. But what if it doesn’t? What if just enjoying your “bad habit” of nut butter and fruit actually makes you stronger and fitter? What if relieving yourself of that stress to hit your numbers reduces your cortisol levels and increases your fat burning capabilities?

  10. What you are so eloquently saying is, don’t get religious about it (what goes in your mouth) and loose the big picture – right? It’s easy to get too carried away at times and worry about the exact micro nutrients.

  11. I appreciate this perspective, Mark. We do the best we can in our household, but we must make compromises on some food choices, especially meat. Because I’ve been studying nutrition and food for such a long time, I feel a great deal of cognitive dissonance at the grocery store. But I’ve had to learn to be thankful for what we have and make the best choices from what’s available. I’m looking into affordable alternatives, but meanwhile, I silently give thanks to the animal – recognizing its role in maintaining my sustenance.

    There’s so much more to life than just fitness, also. I doubt that I could ever be as hard core as many of those who visit MDA. Music, spending time with friends, creating the projects that come from my imagination, and understanding the needs of others and the world at large give me great pleasure. My goal is to feel alive and healthy – improving my ability to follow through with these drives and interests.

  12. It’s the firs time I heard about food anxiety wow! This world becomes more and more complex. Thanks for this article. I’ve learned a few things and indeed you made me realize I also have a little bit of food anxiety. There is so much pressure nowadays from outside, when I was a kid it was so different, I just ate what my mom gave me. Since I grew up and made my own food it is sometimes difficult if you work full time and don’t have time to make something healthy.

  13. “maybe they’re distracting themselves from other behaviors or unhappiness they don’t want to own.” This line almost brought tears to my eyes…

  14. I cant eat scared of choking due to my anxiety it’s so scared only take milkshake thanks