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Challenging Your Fear of Hunger

For many of us, a fear of hunger happens when we have a distorted relationship with food and we don’t trust our bodies.

We have anxiety when hungry because we don’t know how to handle these physical, mental and emotional feelings that we’ve tried to suppress for so long.

We fear hunger because we fear overeating, and then we fear fullness.

It’s a constant cycle that really gets us nowhere, and takes up a lot of mental space!

If you’re confused about hunger signs and how to honor them, here’s a post about honoring your hunger, which is first and foremost.

Your fear of hunger doesn’t need to prevent you from nourishing your body and eating foods you love.

There is a middle ground of learning to trust your body’s cues, honoring those cues, and moving on with your day.

This post will break down where this idea of anxiety about hunger comes from, and how to dismantle those thoughts.

If we don’t know what our hunger signs are, it’s a lot harder and more nuanced than it already is! This is where the fear of hunger comes from.

Some signs of hunger include:

  • growling stomach
  • thinking about food
  • inability to concentrate
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • pit in stomach
  • general discontent

These are some of many, and many are individualized, based on the person.

We often use the intuitive eating hunger scale to learn to get back in touch with what hunger and fullness feel like.

intuitive eating hunger scale graphic

Where Does the Fear of Hunger Come From?

After struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, we learn to not trust ourselves.

In fact, we try to ignore signs of hunger from our body. Since we don’t trust ourselves, we don’t think we deserve to eat. This is not rational thinking.

This leads to a very distorted way of looking at food, and unfortunately, undereating.

Many people with distorted eating habits may later go on to develop relative energy deficiency.

Many of my clients come to me about arbitrary food rules and feeling out of control around food they have in their head, especially about snacking.

If it’s not a certain time, they believe they can’t eat, even if they are hungry.

The funny thing is, these times are times that they have subjectively chosen as their feeding times.

These are arbitrary food rules formed by the food police, and making peace with food and practicing food flexibility is important in helping to dismantle these.

Hunger is a Good Thing

In these situations, I try to explain to them that the feeling of hunger is a gift.

It’s a sign that our bodies are working and need fuel to continue working (more on that here).

I explain that their eating times will be different from my eating times, because we are all different people.

We’ve exercised differently, we’ve consumed different amounts of fluid, we’re built differently, we’re experiencing different stressors, etc. The list goes on.

No two people will be the same, so it is futile to try to fit in the mold of eating at “normal” times. Your normal eating is different from my normal.

Some people need to eat every two hours, others every three hours.

Some people can get by on eating every four hours. <- That is not me, and I’m okay with it.

Our Bodies Control When We Eat

I also tell them that our brains don’t control when we are hungry and need to eat – our bodies do.

It takes time to understand what our body is telling or asking of us. We can become out of sync or rhythm with our bodies when we don’t listen, or constantly ignore hunger.

The 10 principles of intuitive eating help us get back in touch with our bodies.

Imagine your gas light blinking that your fuel was low. What would happen if you ignore it too long? You’d be in trouble and stuck. 

Well, it’s similar with food. We get “stuck” in that we lose those cues from our body. 

If we constantly ignore our hunger signals and try to wait it out to the next meal time, chances are we will overeat at that meal because we are already out of touch with what our body was trying to tell us.

Or, if we ignore hunger signals, food will take up more mental space. We’ll continue to think about food, because our body is telling us it needs energy.

We may think about highly palatable food options, or foods that we perceive as “off limits.”

holding up chocolate chip cookie at a baseball game

What do you like to eat? How do you decide if it’s what you want vs. what you THINK you should eat?

Since our bodies are pretty smart, we want to listen to them. We WANT to develop that trust. 

We want to take the time to reframe disordered thoughts into rational thoughts.

Coldstone ice cream in cone bowl

Maybe we ate breakfast a little earlier, so we’re hungrier for our snack a little earlier. Or maybe we left out some essential protein and fat in our prior meal, so we’re not satiated as long.

I use this list of healthy athlete snacks with many of my clients to urge them to keep shelf stable snacks on hand. Thrive Market is great for this!

The more we ignore the hunger signs, the less our bodies will consistently tell us when they need fuel.

Undereating can be cumulative and take time for the body to catch up on.

By that I mean, if you underrate a few days ago, your hunger cues could be stronger in the following days.

The body is smart and will try to maintain equilibrium or a balance to the best of its ability.

It will work to maintain your weight and keep it constant.

cheeseburger with onions and ketchup on white plate

Eating is a Process, Not a Destination

There is a theory called the set point theory.

This theory recognizes that our body will regulate itself to a predetermined, natural weight, despite attempts to change it.

The body will naturally settle at where it is supposed to be through feedback control mechanisms.

This video, called Poodle Science, provides a great explanation!

In other words, no matter how hard you try to override your body’s natural happy point, your body will always do its best to return to this point.

Eating is fluid – we’re constantly learning as we go. There have been many times when I haven’t recognized or listened to my hunger cues.

I have been there and thought, “I can wait another hour until lunch,” or, “I just ate my morning snack. I can’t eat again until after lunch.”

Eating may have seen as an inconvenience at the time, but it may have been exactly what my body needed to perform for me.

blue plate with slices of pizza on it and side salad with chicken

Or, on the flip side, I’ve eaten past my satiety level, and felt full for hours.

This is a normal part of eating too, and learning to respect and feel your fullness is a must for improving your relationship with food.

There is no perfection because there is not an end goal to reach once and be done with it.

Intuitive eating is a constant process and practice makes perfect.

So, the next time you’re beating yourself up about being hungry, realize that it could be that your body is catching up from previous underfueling.

Or, maybe your body is just working harder that day, your hormones are working differently, you didn’t sleep well the night before, you’re recovering from a different workout, etc.

STRUGGLING WITH YOUR HUNGER AND FULLNESS?

Grab Our Intuitive Eating Guide to Help You Achieve Food Freedom!


Your guide to food freedom ebook

And sometimes there is no explanation as to why you are hungrier – you just are. The fear of being hungry comes from constant undereating.

Don’t feel shameful about feeling hungry. Be happy that you have the opportunity to feed that hunger. And be happy that you have those hunger cues established in the first place.

Remember that each time you listen to those hunger cues, you are building on a foundation of trust for your body. It gets easier over time. 

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  1. Big fat yessssssssss to this!

    My Mum is a big one for “you should only eat X at X time” and I couldn’t care less. She’ll be like “why are you eating lunch at 11am?!” – why, because I have a meeting at 12pm for 2 hrs and don’t feel like eating my client’s arm off, so I’ll eat now 😛

    Now, for ice cream flavours… I was ALWAYS a cookies and cream girl but I haven’t been able to find a GF version so now it’s always anything chocolatey. But it has to be super rich chocolate!

  2. Eat when you are hungry — what a novel idea! And hey, it’s okay to let yourself get hungry rather than just eat because it is a time when most people eat. Just as you said, listen to your body and pay attention – give it what it wants!

  3. I love this post! I also cannot wait four hours to eat–at least, not often. 😛 I’ve been recognizing that there are times when I’ve gotten good at ignoring my hunger.. In the past month or two, I’ve really been trying to make an effort to eat promptly after I recognize that I’m hungry, and I feel like I’ve been hungry all the time! It’s definitely a sign that I’ve been running low on fuel. 🙁
    How do you pick a favorite ice cream flavor? I’m not sure I could do it. Lately, though, I’ve weirdly been craving butter pecan. Weirdly only because butter pecan isn’t a flavor I’ve had very many times in my life.

  4. Nodding so so much to this! I ignored my hunger for a long time, and I definitely experienced the reprecussions of it for a long time. I almost never had an appetite for about a year. Or I did, but it was very rare, and I began to really appreciate it when it came back. Thank you to the moon and back for sharing this Sarah; your wisdom and advice is treasured by me and so many others.

  5. This was a really insightful post and a really good reminder! Its so easy to let your head/brain run the game when it really should be our bodies.

  6. I’m a scoop of chocolate chip in a cup girl. 🙂

    This is a great post! I know quite a few people who should read it, if not to only understand about listening to their own hunger cues, but to also understand that my hunger cues and their hunger cues aren’t the same and that neither of us should feel bad about being hungry. <3

    1. Hi Jennifer, thank you for reading! Feel free to share with those who you think my benefit. All of us will have different cues – when and what to eat, and that’s okay.

  7. As a runner, my hunger is all over the place. I won’t be hungry at all following a day of hard running, yet want to eat my entire fridge the day after. I’ve learned that my body works in its own way and that I’ll do best by following along.
    Diana
    http://betterthanalive.com

  8. SUCH an important message and reminder – thank you! As for your questions, here’s my answers = Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip (although if we’re getting super specific, my favorite ice cream flavor is PB Wins The Cup from Ample Hills) and cup (actually, a fancy mini sundae glass, haha), never a cone.

      1. I order most of my ice cream online (I’m an ice cream snob and do ice cream reviews quite frequently). You must check out their website, you’re missing out! 🙂

  9. Love love love this! It’s so amazing that our bodies self-regulate and that we don’t have to micromanage them. It’s hard not to micromanage sometimes, thanks to messages we get everywhere telling us to disconnect from our bodies, but great posts like this one help remind me not to try to outthink what my body’s telling me. 🙂

  10. Thank you so so much for this. Listening to my hunger cues instead of the clock is still a struggle for me, but I’m trying to work on it. Your explanation made so much sense! As for your questions….probably something with chocolate and chewy chunks and always a cup, no cone!

  11. THANK.YOU. It drives me crazy when people tell me that they are so hungry but can’t eat because they just did. I couldn’t imagine waiting hours to eat if my body was telling me it was hungry!

    Onto the fun questions. I freaking love peanut butter ice cream but will almost always choose a good vanilla + rainbow sprinkles over anything else. In a waffle cone, always. 😉

    1. It somehow got ingrained in us that we can’t indulge in hunger right when it hits us, which I think is sad. If our body wants food, give it food. SPRINKLES – it’s been way too long since I’ve had them! Need to get on that asap 🙂

  12. Preach! Such a great and very necessary post, Sarah. While I still need to practice listening to my hunger cues at all times – making progress – I’m also reminding myself how incredibly blessed I am to actually have all kinds of food available in abundance whenever my stomach rumbles. Way too many people in the world don’t so letting myself get too hungry is a foolish first world issue.

  13. If I wanted to lose some weight and didn’t really want to eat every time my body says I am hungry, what could I eat (other than drinking water)
    that would be healthy but as low as possible in calories?

    1. It’s not necessarily about choosing the foods lowest in calories, but what your body wants/needs at that moment. Between meals, I love to stick with fruit/nuts/seeds/veggies because they have fiber and bulk which can help fill you up without overfilling you between meals.

  14. This is perfect! It took me a really long time to grasp this idea and I always had these silly food rules that I “had to follow”. Now that I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full, I weigh less than I did before (not talking about my pregnancy weight haha) feel waaay more satisfied and have been able to relax and enjoy more food that I used to determine were “bad”.
    Great post!!! My favorite ice cream flavor is probably cookies ‘n cream the cashew milk based ones are my fave!

  15. I read this as I’m sitting here hungry, waiting for my “appropriate feeding time” to roll around. This was just what I needed. I am one of “those” clients of yours 🙂 Information like this has been really helpful and encouraging for me. Thank you!!!!