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How to Overcome a Fear of Hunger

Amy wants to know how to overcome her fear of hunger.

Question: I noticed how afraid I am of hunger. This is a big issue for me that is becoming more obvious as I try to apply the principles I am learning in this Mindful Eating workshop. I feel almost a sense of panic when I start to feel hungry. I had a bad experience one afternoon at the vet’s office. I didn’t feel it coming but all the sudden I recognized that my blood sugar had dropped. I didn’t have any food with me and I got really stressed. When I finally got home, I ate too much, too fast. I really don’t like that feeling. There’s got to be a better way to respond!

Answer: Thank you, Amy. You didn’t say you have diabetes, so I am going to assume that you don’t and that you aren’t taking any glucose-lowering diabetes medications. (For hunger and diabetes, please read Mindful Eating and Hunger When You’re On Medications for Diabetes. Link: https://amihungry.com/mindful-eating-and-hunger-when-youre-on-medications-for-diabetes/)

There are a lot of reasons you may have learned to be afraid of hunger.

Uncomfortable or scary experiences, like your situation at the vet’s office.
Perhaps there was a time in your life when you weren’t fed consistently or felt uncertain about getting enough food. For example, if your caregivers had difficulty providing meals consistently, maybe due to money, schedules, or other challenges, then food insecurity can lead to a persistent fear of hunger.
Some people don’t feed themselves consistently as adults because they lack awareness of hunger or don’t take time to eat, so they often find that they are overly hungry.
If you weren’t “allowed” to eat on past diets, you may perceive your natural feelings of hunger as unpleasant and try to avoid them.
In addition, many diets promote eating on a schedule. Their explanation is that it will keep your metabolism up or prevent hunger so you won’t overeat. These messages feed a fear of hunger.
The good news is that, unless you are medications for diabetes that can cause hypoglycemia, serious low blood sugar reactions are rare. Although it may feel scary at first, remember that hunger is your natural guide for meeting your fuel needs! Think of it like a fuel gauge in your car that lets you know when it is time to refuel.

Mindfulness is really helpful for becoming more aware of the earlier signs of hunger. As your stomach begins to feel empty, you may become more aware of its muscular contractions. As your blood sugar starts to dip, you may notice low energy, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. If you don’t eat, you may become aware of a feeling of weakness, shakiness, and even develop a headache.

I know those symptoms of hunger don’t feel great, but they aren’t there to hurt you—they are there to get your attention so you will feed yourself! With practice, you will become more attuned to your hunger cues and learn that you can trust your internal fuel gauge.

One of the problems with being afraid of hunger is that it can lead to preventive eating or eating on a schedule. Instead of eating automatically every three hours, perhaps you set an alarm in a few hours to check in and notice any symptoms of hunger. (Our Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app has a timer that you can set that will remind you to check in and provides the instructions for a Body-Mind-Heart Scan.)

Of course, being overly hungry is a potential trigger for overeating, so it makes sense to be prepared for hunger by keeping food on hand. Convenient foods (nuts, string cheese, fruit) that can be eaten discretely on a short break, between appointments, or after a meeting, helps eliminate the need to eat preventatively.

When you notice that you are overly hungry, remind yourself that your stomach capacity didn’t increase, so you don’t need more food than usual—you just need to eat soon. Be intentional about choosing food and slowing down to eat.

To overcome the fear of hunger, assure yourself that you’ll usually be able to eat when you’re hungry. This may mean reminding yourself that food scarcity is no longer an issue and that you are an adult now who trusts your body’s signals of hunger.

And don’t be afraid of “ruining your metabolism” if you occasionally can’t eat right away. Although I wouldn’t recommend intentionally ignoring hunger frequently, if you can’t eat the moment hunger strikes, your body has fuel reserves that it will draw on until you can eat.

So Amy, the answer to your statement, “There has to be a better way,” is yes, there is!

Oh, and one more benefit of learning to overcome your fear of hunger is that food tastes even better when you’re hungry. As my grandmother used to say, hunger is the best seasoning!

When you know better, do better!

Have you ever looked back on something you did or said in the past that caused you to feel embarrassed, or even ashamed? Now imagine you had written it down in a book!

That’s where I found myself.

Six months ago, I began the process of updating my books and workbooks that were more than five years old. I thought the process would be relatively quick, simple, and painless. Instead, I was surprised to realize that they all required significant rewrites!

Don’t get me wrong… I am still 100% behind the awareness, new skills, and life-changing shifts that come from using the Mindful Eating Cycle to completely rethink one’s relationship with food. Those concepts continue to help others recognize and resolve even longstanding challenges with food, so I didn’t need to change them.

What I discovered though was how many subtle weight-related messages had slipped through and needed to be removed or modified! It’s not that I promoted weight loss, but the ubiquitous weight-focus in our society was present in my words, and at the time, I couldn’t see it. As I reread the material through my current lens, I experienced feelings of confusion, embarrassment, regret, guilt, and even shame.

Diet Culture is Just One Piece of the Puzzle
Eight years ago when I wrote Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, and then when I updated it in 2013, I clearly understood the harm that diet culture was doing to our relationship with food. However, I didn’t yet understand how much our cultural obsession with weight was feeding that diet culture. That seems obvious now, which is why it was confusing to read my own words.

Here are two examples from my descriptions of instinctive eating, before and after the rewrite:

Before: Think of someone who stays within her natural weight range.

After: Think of someone who manages her eating effortlessly.

Before: She never stops to ask the question “Am I hungry?” yet somehow manages to eat enough to grow and maintain a healthy weight.

After: She never stops to ask the question “Am I hungry?” yet somehow manages to eat enough to play, learn, and grow.

Depending on where you are in your journey, these changes may or may not feel meaningful. But from where I sit now, my “before” versions reinforced our culture’s focus on weight—a focus I believe is feeding disordered eating, eating disorders, shame, guilt, and less health, not more. The recognition that I contributed to this paradigm, made me feel sad and ashamed.

It’s a Process
At times, I feel frustrated that there are still so many restrictive messages out there feeding the eat-repent-repeat cycle. However, updating my books has been a humbling reminder that we are all in process, and that change takes time.

Weight, or more specifically weight loss, is one of the most common concerns people have about giving up dieting in favor of mindful eating. As I explained in this article, Mindful Eating and Weight Loss, weight loss isn’t the reason to learn how to eat mindfully, and focusing on it gets in the way of healing your relationship with food.

Still, it is understandable that you might have trouble letting go of a weight-focus. After all, this is my work, and look how long it’s taking me to get it! So, I sincerely apologize if anything I’ve written may have reinforced your beliefs about weight.

Be Gentle With Yourself As You Are Learning to Change
Throughout the rewriting process, I had to gently remind myself that I am a product of this culture too. At the same time, it has been exciting to realize how much my thinking has evolved, and to recognize that there will always be more room for growth.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

It is safe to assume that I am still making mistakes and have a lot to learn. I am committed to continually doing better—and I fully support you in your journey to do better too!

Out with the Old, In with the New

After raising two kids and two puppies in our home, it was definitely time for new carpeting! Since we had decided to skip Christmas this year, December seemed the perfect time to do it.

However, I underestimated the size of the project! We had to completely empty six rooms—our living room, two bedrooms, two offices, and our master closet—into our hallways, dining room, and kitchen. It was overwhelming to see all our “stuff” piled up like that, but we decided that it was the perfect opportunity to decide what we really wanted to put back in.

I carefully considered whether each piece of clothing, furniture, knick-knack, and folder was really serving us. Many things had been in place for so long that we didn't notice they weren't working for us anymore. While it was a bit disconcerting to finally get rid of things that we'd lived with for a long time, it felt good to create space for what we really wanted.

New Year's Intentions
That’s what I like about the New Year too. While I refuse to participate in the whole resolve-to-diet-and-lose-weight thing, I love the opportunity to take stock of different areas of my life. At the beginning of the year, I consciously evaluate what’s working and what’s not, set a fresh intention to create the life I want, and decide on a few focus areas that will bring me closer to that intention.

A "New" Diet is the Same Old Thing
As you consider what’s working for you and what’s not, I hope you will think about your relationship with food…

For many of the people we work with, their old habit was to set a New Year’s resolution to start a new diet. But a “new” diet isn’t really new, is it? It is like rearranging old furniture and knick-knacks; it might feel new for a short period of time, but before long, you realize that nothing has really changed.

Clear the Clutter
Pause to notice whether any of these old habits are cluttering up your life.

You start a new diet in January (and many Mondays), full of enthusiasm and commitment, only to find yourself struggling to stick with it.
You love to eat but feel guilty for eating foods you’ve heard are “bad.”
You eat differently in private than you do in public.
You resist certain foods or ingredients, then overeat them when your willpower runs out.
You keep looking for the “right” diet, but end up feeling discouraged and bad about yourself.
You think about food and eating (or not eating) more than seems “normal.”
You spend too much time weighing, measuring, counting, and logging food, then quit all that and spend too much time feeling too full and guilty!
If you are ready to throw out the old and create space for a new relationship with food, mindful eating isn't based on record-keeping, deprivation, or willpower. Instead, you learn how to use your awareness of your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings to guide your eating, physical activity, and self-care.

I know it sounds like a big job, but we've been helping people do exactly that for 18 years! I know what a huge difference it will make in your life, and trust me, new carpet doesn't even come close!

Michelle May M.D.

Michelle May is a physician and recovered yoyo dieter. She founded Am I Hungry?® to provide an alternative to restrictive and ineffective dieting.

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Charlene's Journal

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Alyx's Journal

Alyx struggles with her weight and is relearning to eat instinctively with Am I Hungry?

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News Archive

How to Overcome a Fear of Hunger

When you know better, do better!

Out with the Old, In with the New

Three Ways to Handle Triggers for Holiday Overeating

Gratitude for the Struggle

I can't eat what I love without overeating!

Goals vs. Intentions

Hunger Doesn’t Follow a Clock

What is the difference between Am I Hungry? and intuitive eating or HAES?

Mindful Eating in a Diet-Obsessed Culture

Let There Be Peace With Food

Mindful Eating and Weight Loss: Setting the record straight

I Can't Tell if I'm Hungry

A Compassionate Response to Emotional Eating

Mindful Eating on Vacation

7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”

Mindful Eating with Health Issues: What If I Can’t Eat What I Love?

A Diet by Any Other Diet is Still a Diet!

Set your intention to retreat with us!

Self-Acceptance Step 1: Become Aware

Don’t Panic! Mindful Eating is a Long-Term Investment

What if We Aren't Craving More Food?

Am I Hungry? Eat Mindfully, Live Vibrantly All-Inclusive Mindful Eating Workshop and Retreat

How Long Does It Take to Learn to Eat Mindfully? By Michelle May, M.D.

The Awareness Journal: A Fly on the Wall

Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Emotional and Binge Eating Retreat and Therapist Training

Freshman 15

Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Emotional and Binge Eating Retreat and Therapist Training

Got Cravings? Three Words to Eliminate From Your Vocabulary

How to Turn Mindful Eating Into a Diet

Get Off of the Tightrope and Onto the Path!

Latest Am I Hungry? Newsletter Published Today!

Mindful Eating for Binge Eating AND for Diabetes

The June Am I Hungry Program Update has been published

Cheap Sunglasses

Am I Hungry? Virtual Coach app

Be Your Valentine

How Thoughts Become Habits

Overeating Trigger #1: STRESS

It's NOT Funny!

This website will be down for maintenance

A Love Letter to Myself

What to Do When You Overdo It

How Mindful Eating Becomes Mindful Living

Different Shades of Grey

Four Critical Lessons for Mindful Eating

Bariatric Surgery: It's STILL Not About the Food!

Stop! Don't Pull that Trigger!

Dining with Myself...Uh Oh!

How Does Mindfulness Help Diabetes Self-Management?

Your Picture of Health

Rewrite Those Ridiculous Holiday Eating Tips

Thankful for Food...The Great Connector

Boot the Bully from Your Brain

The Italian Treadmill: Do What You Love, Love What You Do

Sensuous Eating: Eat with Beginner's Mind

Do You EatSpeak?

Emotional Eating: Reading the Clues to Your Feelings and Needs

Dr. May on Dr. Oz Exploring the Power of the Mind-Body Connection

Cure for Chocoholics: Eat Fearlessly!

Habits Recreate the Past again and again

Can Mindful Eating Really Lead to Weight Loss (and does it matter)?

Foodie's Guide to Mindful Holiday Eating

Playing a Game of Chance

Duck Your Cravings

Eat, Learn, Live

Going Bananas: Weird thoughts about food caused by dieting

Check Your Fuel Gauge Before You Fill Up

Regret and Her Horrible Twin, Guilt

How to Enjoy a Cruise - Without Going Overboard

Eating 2010: Rollercoaster or GPS?

Recipes: Overeating and Instinctive Eating

The Trick to Managing the Treats

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat - Interview with Dr. May


Would You Allow Someone to Buy You Off with Food?

TRUST YOUR GUT INSTINCTS: Tuning In to Your Body, Mind, Heart, and Spirit



What Moves You? Discover the Inspiration to Change






What You Resist Persists

Reclaim Your Time and Energy: Five Ways to Get Your Life Back







Weighty Conversations

Myth #8 - You HAVE to Eat Breakfast

Don’t Eat After 7 and Six Other Weight Management Myths

Resolutions or Results

7 Strategies for Holiday Eating Without Weight Gain

Am I Hungry? Member Portal

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