What is food noise–and how can you quiet it?

All those non-stop thoughts about food can make it a lot harder for you to lose weight. Here’s why they happen and how to silence them.
Published October 18, 2023

Did I see chips in the pantry? In the pantry. In. The. Pantry.

Weren’t there doughnuts in the office kitchen today?

Lunch is over. Now, what am I going to have for dinner?

I know I just ate and I should be working, but I need to run down to the coffee shop for something sweet.

That constant soundtrack of food-related chatter in your brain may be business as usual to you–something you just have to live with–but imagine if one day you woke up and it had simply…gone away. Not only would your mind be free to focus on other things, but you’d also likely find it easier to reach your health goals. After all, you can only ignore that mental reminder of how good fries taste so many times before you swing through the nearest drive-through. “Food noise is incessant, almost like an itch that you have to scratch when it comes to thinking about food,” says obesity and lipid specialist Spencer Nadolsky, DO, medical director of WeightWatchers®.

Even if you’ve lived with food noise for as long as you can remember, you don’t have to live with it forever. Find out more about what brings food noise on, how you can reduce it, and the unique role weight-management medications may play in adjusting the volume.

What causes food noise?

It comes down to a complex interaction between your biology and food environment. There are two main factors that drive your appetite (and, as a result, ping food thoughts): homeostatic hunger and reward-based hunger. Homeostatic hunger is sometimes referred to as physical hunger. When your energy stores dip because it’s been a while since you last had a meal or snack, your brain gets a signal that it needs to take in calories, so you feel hungry and think more about food.

But you can also feel driven to eat for a reason that has nothing to do with physical hunger. You have a reward system in your brain that is all about the sheer enjoyment of food. And the most delicious foods, like those higher in fat and sugar, impact the reward system the most. This is one reason why food noise pretty much never sounds like an uncontrollable din of “eat more celery!” Here’s where your environment really matters. There is accessible “highly tasty, easily overeaten foods” at your fingertips, says Nadolsky, which all activate your reward system. And you can easily answer that call by swinging by a bakery, ordering Chinese food, or grabbing something from your stocked pantry.

This second type of hunger can, in essence, override the first type–making food noise happen all day long, even if you’re physically full. Ever eat a large lunch but still crave something sweet and can’t stop thinking about it? This is because the reward pathway in your brain wants to be satisfied, too, says Nadolsky. This phenomenon is something that researchers call a “dessert mentality,” and it explains why you can always seem to have room for cake or ice cream, even after a big dinner.

When is food noise normal–and when is it too much?

Not only is having some food noise normal, it’s actually healthy! If you’ve been working all day without a break, your hunger should step in, tap you on the shoulder, and say it’s time to eat. Focusing on food can help you plan out what you’re going to eat (dinner isn’t going to make itself!) or remind you about how much you love your favorite treat. These are examples of a positive role food noise can play, says Dr. Holly Wyatt, M.D., an endocrinologist and professor in the department of nutrition sciences at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

However, for some people, food noise can cross the line and become an issue. “The difference between food noise being problematic or not is how often it’s occurring,” says Nadolsky. “Food noise that’s all day, everyday, no matter what drives people to eat more, and these individuals tend to have a higher body weight that affects their health.”

Another sign that food noise has tipped from being helpful to harmful is when it interferes with your well-being. If it distracts you from your day-to-day activities, impacts your relationships (like making you want to avoid certain social situations because you worry you’ll be absorbed in thoughts of what you’ll eat and when), or affects your mental health, then you may consider seeking help for the food noise. Talking to a registered dietitian, behavioral health psychologist, or a healthcare provider trained in weight management is a good place to start.

Does food noise only affect people with overweight or obesity?

Not at all. Food noise is a pretty universal experience, no matter your weight. But like so many things related to eating and weight, the amount and intensity of food noise someone experiences can vary hugely from person to person due to genetics and other factors still being discovered.

That said, Nadolsky points out that if you develop obesity, there may be brain changes that occur that affect your appetite. In one review published in Obesity Reviews in 2015, 15 of the 19 studies analyzed suggested that people with overweight and obesity have more brain activity when exposed to food images than those who have a normal weight. That stronger response might make food noise louder and harder to ignore, supporting the fact that losing weight and resisting the drive to eat is more difficult for some people.

Another interesting study suggests that people who develop obesity may possibly have different brain responses to eating. One theory is that the gut sends a weaker signal to the brain (via hormones) that nutrients are on board and in the stomach, which can make someone more prone to overeating. (Other research supports this idea, showing that receptors for dopamine, a neurotransmitter, are altered in people with high amounts of fat tissue.) This persistent biological hunger continued even when people lost weight, adding another challenge to maintaining a healthy weight.

How does food noise affect weight loss?

If you’re reducing how much you’re eating to lose weight, your body will likely try to get you back to your normal weight (a phenomenon known as having a set point weight). And it does this by ramping up your appetite and food chatter in an effort to increase what you eat. This reaction has been built into your biology from long ago, when food wasn’t as plentiful and taking in fewer calories meant you needed to find more to eat, fast. “You’re not broken. This is how your metabolism and physiology works,” Wyatt says.

But these days, that excess food noise when you’re eating fewer calories can make it difficult to lose weight. In addition, intentionally restricting the most tasty, rewarding foods can make the chatter louder. After all, you want what you can’t have. In that instance, “giving yourself permission to eat what you want within a healthy dietary pattern is a good idea,” says Nadolsky.

In other words, that brownie or special seasonal coffee drink can and should be worked into a balanced way of eating. This is a key component of the WeightWatchers weight-loss program, which puts no foods on the “off limit” list. It's also a basic principle of prioritizing weight health over weight loss, which means having habits that will make you feel good and improve your health over the long-term, not trying to get down to a certain number on the scale as fast as possible. A good check-in is to take a 20,000-foot view of your diet–not only is it generally nutritious, but does it feel joyful, balanced, and fun.

How do you stop food noise?

Remember: The goal isn’t to make food noise go away completely (what’s a life without anticipation for a delicious dinner?). But if you feel like your focus on food is veering into the problem zone, you can do some things to bring it down a notch.

  • Don’t ignore your appetite: Waiting too long to eat and getting excessively hungry makes food noise practically shout in your face. “Make sure you fuel regularly and don’t go for long periods without food,” Wyatt says. And try to include a source of protein in your meals and snacks, since it can help fill you up and keep you feeling satisfied for longer.
  • Keep things out of sight, out of mind: When you see food, your eyes send cues to your brain reminding you how good it tastes. The result: Non-stop food thoughts that won’t quiet down until you start eating. Meet up with a coworker in their office instead of the break room filled with baked goods and pick a spot to mingle at a party that’s further away from the dessert buffet.
  • Decrease stress: Another sneaky time food noise tends to creep in is when you’re stressed, which can lead to emotional eating. Wyatt says awareness is the first step, which is why she suggests paying attention to when you’re the most stressed (what just happened, what time of day is it, and how loud did the food noise get). Then, ahead of time, come up with other stress-coping strategies that don’t involve food. That might be heading outside for a five-minute walk around the block or turning on a fun, lighthearted podcast.
  • Engineer your environment: A good way to stop thinking about the chips in your pantry? Don’t have any in there. The siren call of snacks gets a lot softer when you can’t just walk to the next room to satisfy it. Make sure your kitchen and pantry reflect your health goals by including an assortment of foods that you enjoy.

What is the link between GLP-1s and food noise?

If you feel like you’ve been hearing more and more about this topic lately, you might be right. That’s because the newest weight-management medications, GLP-1s like liraglutide (Saxenda) and semaglutide (Wegovy), have had an unexpected impact on food noise in some people. Nadolsky puts it this way: For many, there has always been an internal struggle of why some of their friends could stop eating pizza after a couple of slices, but they’d have four and still want more. After starting on a GLP-1, they suddenly experienced mental clarity and food control. “Patients will say, ‘I didn’t know what normal felt like,’” he says.

What’s going on? Well, as Nadolsky explains, these weight-management medications hit receptors in the brain that affect both satiety and the reward pathway. “It quiets down that incessant itch to want to think about food and puts choice back into the matter,” he says.

That means that rather than feel controlled by the food chatter in your brain, you’re free to decide if you really want that cookie or not. A study on the weight-management medication liraglutide published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2019 found that after just six weeks, people in the liraglutide group reported larger reductions in hunger and food preoccupation (another way to say “food noise”) and more fullness compared to those who made behavior changes without taking the medication.

That’s something Dr. Ania Jastreboff, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Yale Obesity Research Center and the co-director of the Yale Center for Weight Management sees, too. “What’s freeing for patients after they’ve devoted so much time to managing their food noise is that when they take these medications, they notice their mind space is now opened up. It’s incredible freedom to be able to eat and feel satiated and not think about the next meal or the brownies in the kitchen." Remove the food noise and “many of my patients describe how they’re free to think about the nutritious choices they can make. They have the brain space to make healthful food choices and other habits, like make a plan on how they can increase their physical activity,” says Jastreboff. In addition, Nadolsky points out that the anxiety surrounding food–what you’re going to eat, when, if someone is going to see you eating, what will happen at that party or restaurant (the list could go on)–also dissipates.

The bottom line

Food noise describes the preoccupation with food that can make it difficult (if not impossible) to stick with healthy habits that align with your weight-loss goals. There are lifestyle habits that can reduce the chatter, such as eating regular, balanced meals and making room for the foods you love, but if the noise is taking up a good portion of your day or creating a blockade so tough that you can’t stick to a healthy eating plan on your own, you may need additional help. One way to reduce food noise is by taking a weight-management medication like a GLP-1. People taking the medication often say that one of the huge benefits, no matter how much weight they lose, is that they’ve seemed to turn down the dial on their food noise, opening them up to experiencing their life with more enjoyment and making it easier to make healthier choices.


Food noise is made up of the constant thoughts in your head about what you’re going to eat next and when you’re going to eat it. It often has little to do with physical hunger and is instead related to your environment, emotions, and other factors.

The newer generation of GLP-1s, like semaglutide (Wegovy) and tirzepatide (Mounjaro) can have a big impact on how often you think about food or experience cravings. It’s one of the mechanisms that ultimately can help you lose weight on these medications.