What Is Food Noise? Experts Explain

Certain people are wired to think about food more—and for some, it's nearly constant. Here's what experts want you to know about food noise and how to quiet it.

Much like our height, eye color and affinity for risk-taking, research shows that genetics strongly influence weight and body size. More than 400 genes are associated with someone’s likelihood to be overweight or obese—and this effect varies widely. According to Harvard Medical School, research has shown that genetics guide our weight by anywhere from 25% to 80%, depending on the person.

This genetic impact can have many knock-on effects, such as your appetite, satiety (how full you feel after eating) and even the tendency to eat as a form of stress relief, according to an April 2021 study in the Journal of Nutrition. Differences in these cues often come down to hormone imbalances and miscommunication between the brain and the gut—and in some people, it can lead to overwhelming mental chatter about food, a situation some clinicians call “food noise.”

What is food noise?

Food noise is not an official medical term or condition. Still, this ongoing rumination is gaining more attention in the medical community, especially as it relates to weight management, obesity and mental health.

“The way I think about food noise is based on what my patients tell me; it’s this sort of chatter that’s going on in their mind, which a lot of times is nonstop,” explains Richard Siegel, MD, an endocrinologist and co-director of the Diabetes and Lipid Center at Tufts Medical Center. “There’s something that’s not really satisfied in their brain until they get something to eat.”

He says that physiologically, food noise likely has something to do with our body’s various hunger hormones—particularly because when people take certain hormonal medications, they report that this ongoing food noise simply switches off. Sometimes, patients didn’t even realize the food noise was there until it’s gone, Dr. Siegel says.

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But someone’s behaviors and background probably play a role, too. For instance, April 2021 research published in Heliyon has shown that lifestyle factors like insufficient sleep and chronic stress impact our hunger hormones. Or food noise could be a product of someone’s past experiences, like if food was not readily available growing up, Dr. Siegel says.

In addition, “overeating, just like any other eating disorder, oftentimes is derived from early childhood events or not learning appropriate ways to cope with negative emotions,” says Michelle DiBlasi, DO, chief of inpatient psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center.

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How do you stop food noise?

Food noise is usually partly behavioral and partly neurochemical, Dr. Siegel explains, so the most effective treatment is often multi-disciplinary. If someone is struggling with overeating and cannot stop thinking about food, a behavioral health specialist can help them understand hunger cues and create healthy habits. Or if overeating is a maladaptive coping strategy, working with a mental health professional to evaluate what might be driving it or what emotions need to be processed in therapy is important, too, Dr. DiBlasi adds.

But Dr. Siegel says that a behavioral health approach can only go so far for some people. “This is where it seems that these newer medicines available can get rid of some of that background desire for food.”

It’s also important to recognize that we all experience some degree of food noise, like before a meal or if we’re not eating enough in our diet. “We often talk about mind hunger and stomach hunger,” Dr. Siegel says—and there’s a distinction between experiencing food noise and being hungry.

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Does Ozempic reduce food noise?

“The first time I’ve heard people tell me that [their treatment has] gotten rid of the food chatter has been with the new, hormonal, injectable medications,” Dr. Siegel says. The two main medications approved for weight loss are Ozempic and Wegovy, the brand names for a drug called semaglutide. (They’re both approved for diabetes at lower doses, too.)

The medication works by mimicking our body’s satiety hormone while slowing down digestion processes. This sends signals to the part of our brain that controls our appetite, reducing feelings of hunger and cravings—and for many people, silencing the associated food noise.

However, this mental food chatter can return once someone stops taking Ozempic—which is why the most effective treatment may be a program that includes behavioral therapy. In addition, medications like Ozempic can cause gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea or constipation. “Generally, the body adapts to it, and it tends to improve over the course of a few weeks,” Dr. Siegel says. “But some people can’t tolerate the medicine because it makes them consistently nauseous.

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Sources

People:

Richard Siegel, MD, an endocrinologist and co-director of the Diabetes and Lipid Center at Tufts Medical Center

Michelle DiBlasi, DO, chief of inpatient psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center

Websites:

Harvard Health Publishing: "Why people become overweight"

Journals:

The Journal of Nutrition: "Hedonic Hunger Is Associated with Intake of Certain High-Fat Food Types and BMI in 20- to 40-Year-Old Adults"

Heliyon: "Relationship between hedonic hunger and subjectively assessed sleep quality and perceived stress among university students: A cross-sectional study"

Leslie Finlay, MPA
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.