What Is Food Noise—And How Does It Relate to Your Weight? Here’s What a New Survey Found – EatingWell

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While you may not have heard of the term “food noise,” there’s a chance you’ve experienced it at some stage of your life. STOP Obesity Alliance, a group of business, consumer, government, advocacy and health organizations dedicated to reversing the obesity epidemic in the U.S., collaborated with WeightWatchers on a recent survey about consumer perspectives on food noise. The results were collected and shared in its latest report, “Beyond Hunger: Understanding Food Noise.” The study explores the phenomenon of “food noise”—defined as “constant, intrusive thoughts about food that are disruptive to daily life and make healthful behaviors extremely difficult”—and its potential link to obesity. 

Among the survey’s respondents, 57% of those living with overweight or obesity reported previously experiencing food noise. These findings shed light on the conversation around weight bias and GLP-1 medications used to treat obesity, such as semaglutide (Ozempic and Wegovy) and dulaglutide (Trulicity). 

One important disclaimer to note is that WeightWatchers recently expanded their program to include more options for those on GLP-1 medications. This includes tailored plans and even help with prescriptions in some cases, so it’s important to be aware of why they are interested in the topic. 

What the Study Found 

The report surveyed 1,174 U.S. adults with diverse body compositions. Participants included 264 people with a body mass index (BMI) under 25, 284 people with a BMI ranging between 25 and 29, and 454 people with a BMI of 30 or higher. (One caveat: here at EatingWell, we have reported on the shortcomings of BMI and how it is a dated and inherently biased measure. Plus, research has found it is not the most accurate way to classify health status or disease risk.) Additionally, 295 participants were using GLP-1 medications for obesity. These medications act in the same way as a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies, glucagon-like peptide-1. Simply put, they help our body release insulin in response to food so that blood sugar can make its way into our cells and also help promote fullness. 

The majority of participants (88%) were familiar with food noise—persistent, intrusive thoughts about food—and 57% reported experiencing it in the past. Additionally, 65% of those surveyed reported regularly fighting the urge to eat despite not being hungry.

Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., an obesity and lipid specialist physician and medical director of WeightWatchers, said in a statement, “The difference between food noise being problematic or not comes down to how often and how intensely it’s occurring. Food noise that occurs daily can be so intense and intrusive that it negatively impacts food choices and quality of life. With constant, intrusive thoughts about food, it’s difficult to navigate behavioral change without clinical help. The first step toward relief and greater empathy for those living with obesity is acknowledging that food noise is a real biological issue that many are facing.”

These findings suggest that food noise poses a considerable obstacle to weight health, with 61% of participants reporting that it hinders their ability to follow nutrition or exercise plans. Additionally, a staggering 83% of those living with overweight or obesity reported judging themselves for their weight, highlighting the pervasive nature of weight bias. These findings reveal the significance of food noise as a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic.

“Research has identified that food noise usually starts from cues, both internal (like feelings of hunger) or external (sensory, social or environmental factors). This can have several influences, such as time of day, lifestyle, preferences and genetics. These cues and influences then trigger what’s referred to as ‘reactivity,’ meaning either biological manifestations like heart rate and salivation or psychological manifestations like cravings and preoccupation with food,” says Jessica Ball, M.S., RD, nutrition editor at EatingWell, citing a 2023 study in Nutrients. “Altogether, these can have short- and long-term effects on one’s health. In order to help quiet food noise without medication, the focus should be on attainable behavior changes that help break this cycle.”

It’s important to take an individual approach in identifying cues, influences and reactivity symptoms, as they will be different for everyone. For some, it may be helpful to prioritize sleep or manage stress to help feel your best in ways that aren’t related to food. For others, it may mean eating more frequent, smaller meals to help stay ahead of feelings of hunger. Look for patterns when you feel out of control around food, and see if there are any small changes you could make to your environment to help (like maybe putting triggering foods in a cabinet versus fully visible on the counter).  

As mentioned, WeightWatchers has specific programs related to GLP-1 medications, and several survey questions inquired about people’s experience with those types of medications. Interestingly, GLP-1 medications were shown to effectively help reduce food noise. Users reported a significant reduction in all-consuming food-related thoughts, making achieving their weight loss goals easier. According to the survey, 76% of GLP-1 users found it easier to choose healthier food options, and 72% reported being better able to stick to nutrition and exercise plans.

“While we know that a person’s weight is not the only measure of health, research does show that maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. And when it comes to managing weight, there’s a common belief that it all relies on a person’s willpower. However, there are different factors that are out of people’s control, such as genetics and environmental factors. Weight loss medications can be an option for people who have difficulty losing weight through dietary changes and physical activity alone,” shares Maria Laura Haddad-Garcia, senior nutrition and news editor at EatingWell. “That said, these weight loss medications shouldn’t be used as the only approach to weight loss but rather as part of a holistic approach, including a healthy and balanced diet and regular physical activity, which can positively impact the quality of life of these people.”

“As our understanding of the challenge of living with obesity continues to grow, the recognition of food noise provides a new insight into why a preoccupation with food may be hardwired and is not simply caused by a lack of willpower,” said William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., director with the STOP Obesity Alliance. “This first-of-its-kind consumer research truly helps define this concept, allowing us to better educate people living with obesity and others in a way that drives greater understanding and compassion and ultimately reduces stigma.”

The Bottom Line 

A recent survey conducted in collaboration with WeightWatchers and the STOP Obesity Alliance found that food noise—constant, intrusive thoughts about food that disrupt daily life—significantly contributes to weight gain. More than half of the survey’s respondents reported experiencing food noise, negatively impacting their ability to stick to nutrition and fitness plans. However, the use of GLP-1 medications was said to reduce food noise considerably. Other strategies, like prioritizing sleep, eating more frequent small meals and making small tweaks to your environment, may help quiet food noise without the use of medications. If you would like to learn more about food noise and how to develop healthy strategies for weight loss, talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian for guidance.

Up Next: What to Eat and Drink When Taking Weight Loss Medications

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