August 12th, 2011
07:40 AM ET

Why do I always think about food?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by Jamie K.

I have a question/problem regarding overeating. Being a college student and food science major, I am constantly thinking about food. I currently play Ultimate Frisbee and occasionally play badminton and go running. I eat extremely healthy, but the problem is I constantly think of food. Therefore, I overeat, and I gained 16 pounds in less than two years. Is there any way to control my self-will? I would like to lose 10 pounds. I am 5 feet 3 and 120 pounds, but it's not like I can cut out unhealthy food in my diet. Eating less is difficult because I do not want to go into starvation mode. Quick advice please?

Expert answer

Hi Jamie. I'm very happy that you asked this question as it brings up several important topics.

Constantly thinking about food is a challenge that many Americans face these days, according to Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the author of "The End of Overeating."

In fact, Kessler notes that 20% of healthy weight and 50% of obese individuals score high on behaviors like loss of control over eating, lack of feeling satisfied by eating food, and preoccupation with food.

Much of this behavior, which he calls conditioned hyper-eating, is due to brain pathways that are established and reinforced by the regular consumption of highly appealing high-fat, high-sugar, salty foods.

Since this does not sound like the issue in your case since you eat extremely healthy, your overeating may be triggered by other cues such as eating environment, emotions like stress and social occasions.

Even though you don't choose unhealthy foods, you are probably consuming too much healthy food, which is leading to weight gain. The key is to identify your triggers and do your best to avoid them or manage them better.

For example, if you eat when you are stressed, try to choose foods that are very low-calorie density like air popped popcorn or vegetables and hummus to keep calories under control. If you eat too much with friends, make sure to have a high fiber or high protein snack before heading out so you aren't famished at social events.

You may also be dealing with a type of disordered eating syndrome. Most people think of eating disorders as either anorexia or bulimia (self-induced purging), but there is a less recognized clinical syndrome, disordered eating not otherwise specified, which may affect a significant portion of the population and seems to be especially prevalent in female college athletes.

According to Carolyn Coker Ross, M.D., MPH , a specialist in integrative medicine for eating disorders, addictions, obesity and mood disorders and author of "The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook," some people who are obsessed with food may actually suffer from disordered eating.

If you find that you are constantly thinking about food, whether you are overweight or not, and your weight and your food obsession are significantly affecting your life and even preventing you from doing things that you enjoy, Ross suggests seeing a therapist or eating disorders specialist for evaluation.

College is the best time to address disordered eating as earlier treatment leads to better outcomes long term. Most universities have a therapist with experience in the diagnosis and treatment of disordered eating on campus. You can also visit edreferral.com.

Finally, if you are not fueling your body correctly (e.g. you are restricting calories too much or cutting carbs in an attempt to control your weight), this could cause you to think about food more often than necessary due to hunger or low blood sugar levels, which trigger your body to seek out calories.

Gaining 16 pounds in two years, assuming that you are not binging, suggests an excess of just 76 calories per day intake (or that you are burning 76 fewer calories per day).

Keep a food journal and see if you can identify where these extra calories might be creeping in (or not being burned). I don't necessarily think it is a matter of self-will in your case - perhaps it is more of the "small changes add up" issue.

One last point, while BMI is not a very accurate measure of body fat, it does give an indication of weight/fat status. Your current BMI is 21.3, which is well within the normal range of 18.5-24.9.

I recommend having a body fat test done if you can to truly assess your ideal body weight and help you determine an appropriate weight goal. Check with the athletic department of your university to see if it offers body fat testing.

Follow Dr. Melina on Twitter.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.