Ep. 98: The Illusion That Overeating Makes You Feel Better (with Cookie Rosenblum)

hunger anxiety

Anxiety About Hunger in Binge Eating Recovery

If you have anxiety or negative associations surrounding your hunger, or you feel like hunger is your enemy in binge eating recovery, this post will help you start developing a healthier mindset when it comes to this natural body signal.

It’s possible that you fear your hunger because you think it has sabotaged your past efforts to diet or because you feel like strong hunger always leads you to binge.  This anxiety response to hunger is something to address in recovery, as well as in your efforts to make peace with food in general.

Hunger discomfort

Hunger is a normal sensation, and reminding yourself that it’s part of the human experience will help you avoid believing there is something wrong with you when you are hungry. That does not mean you’re going to like feeling hungry. You’re not supposed to like it. Hunger is meant to be an uncomfortable sensation that motivates you to fix it by eating. Humans would not have survived for long without this uncomfortable drive.

When hunger first starts, it can be just a gentle feeling nudging you toward food, but as more time goes by, you may become irritable, you may not be able to think about anything else besides food, you may get frustrated if you can’t get food right away, and you may have a lot of unpleasant sensations in your body.

It’s not realistic to expect yourself to have all of those feelings and sensations—which are meant to strongly motivate you toward food—and feel completely calm about it. Making peace with your hunger simply means that you’ll learn to experience the discomfort without causing it to be worse with a lot of fear, anxiety, and self-judgement.

Recall your pre-eating-disorder experience of hunger

You can likely remember times when you’ve experienced hunger without the anxiety and self-criticism, especially if you think back to before you began restricting or binge eating. Maybe think about when you were a child in school, and you were hungry while sitting in class waiting for lunchtime. I’m sure you did not like that feeling of hunger, and I’m sure you did not feel perfectly peaceful in those moments. Your empty and growling stomach probably distracted you from the work you needed to be doing, and you probably looked at the clock wishing time would pass. I’m sure you that you were excited about eating when the time finally came and that it felt so good to satisfy your hunger.

Through all of this, you didn’t judge yourself for what you were experiencing. You didn’t fear your hunger, and you didn’t criticize yourself for wanting food or enjoying it when it was time to eat. You weren’t sitting in class as a child thinking, I shouldn’t be hungry … I have no willpower … I’ll never be able to control myself when I start eating … I’m scared that I’m going to overdo it and gain weight … why can’t I just stop thinking about food so much.

Before your eating disorder, hunger was a lot more of a pure experience—meaning you just experienced it without judging yourself for it. You just knew that you were hungry and that you wanted food—without thinking you were broken in some way for having these natural body signals and desires for food.

Anxiety about hunger often stems from restriction

Anxiety and negative associations with hunger often develop as a result of dieting. When you are trying to eat less than you need, your hunger can start to feel like your enemy. When you know you’re only “allowed” a certain amount of food (according to your diet), but your hunger tells you that you should eat more than that, you feel like you need to suppress your hunger and ignore it. You may get angry with your hunger and wish it away and think it’s the reason you can’t stick to a diet.

Because our bodies are wired to protect us from starvation, your hunger likely got stronger during your diet. Understandably, you eventually followed your hunger and broke your diet, and because you thought it meant you were “weak,” you then engaged in a lot of self-critical thoughts. This may have repeated countless times for you.

If you started bingeing in response to your strong hunger, then that adds another layer of negative feelings, self-judgement, and anxiety. You start to fear your hunger because you fear that it will lead you to binge. It makes sense that you are afraid to binge, because binge eating is a harmful and painful behavior that you truly don’t want to engage in. In turn, it also makes sense that you would come to fear anything you think causes that behavior.

Hunger is not the problem

I hope that now you better understand how hunger goes from being a pure experience (not a comfortable one) to something that brings up a lot of anxiety. When it comes to making peace with your hunger, an important starting point is realizing that the sensations of hunger are not the problem. The problem is the negative thoughts and feelings you’ve inadvertently connected to hunger over time.

You can start to separate the sensations of hunger from those negative thoughts and feelings, and you can start to dismiss those negative thoughts and feelings—including anxiety and self-judgement. You can start gravitating back toward experiencing hunger as you did before developing this struggle with food.

Decondition the [hunger = binge] pattern

As it relates to getting rid of the fear that you’ll binge in response to hunger, this just takes time and consistency. As you learn to experience urges to binge without acting on them, you’ll get more confident that nothing will lead you to binge, not even strong hunger. Then, the anxiety around hunger can naturally subside.

For this to happen, it’s going to take many times of being hungry and then satisfying that hunger without going on to binge. Once you’re confident that you can eat adequately in response to hunger, and that it won’t spiral out of control, then hunger is no longer going to feel like a threat.

Making sure that you’re eating enough overall and giving up restriction is definitely going to make hunger feel less fear-inducing, because you’re no longer going to be trying to suppress the hunger, or deny it, or view it as the enemy. As you let go of dieting, and as you learn to nourish your body, you will start viewing hunger simply as a signal that it’s time to eat. You can even learn to welcome this signal as your body’s amazing way of communicating your needs.

Heightened hunger signals will fade

One thing to know (if you’ve engaged in restrictive dieting) is that your hunger may be stronger right now than it would otherwise be if you had never restricted. When we diet, our body turns up the hormones and neurochemicals that drive hunger and turns down the ones that lead to fullness. This only makes sense from a survival standpoint.

Once you start eating enough, this heightened hunger can take some time to regulate. So, if your hunger feels more uncomfortable than you think it should, know that this is something that corrects itself over time—as you get further and further away from restriction.

Binge eating also has the effect of increasing your hunger because your body and brain simply come to expect and demand large amounts of food. But as you recover, you allow your digestive system to heal and your appetite to go back to normal. If you have any concerns about abnormal hunger during recovery, you should absolutely get the medical and nutritional help you need, but the solution is never to binge.

Over time, you’ll learn that hunger—although not a pleasant sensation—doesn’t have to create anxiety. You can learn to make peace with many different levels of hunger, and never fear that it’s going to lead you to binge.


More help:

If you want extra guidance as you learn to give up dieting and binge eating, and make peace with your hunger, here are some resources for additional support:

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.

Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.

One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.

NLP and Eating Disorders

Ep. 75: NLP, Self-Worth, and Changing Harmful Beliefs (Interview with Laurette Smith)

are you truly binge eating

Ep. 72: Are You Truly Binge Eating?

cookie rosenblum kathryn hansen

Free Class with Cookie & Kathryn

I’ve heard from many people who aren’t sure if they binge or not. They know they are doing something with food that doesn’t feel good, and they know they are eating too much at times, but…

Is it binge eating?
Is it compulsive overeating?
Is it emotional eating?

There is some subjectivity in labeling problematic eating behaviors, and there is often overlap between behaviors. However, it’s valuable to determine what you are specifically struggling with, because when you know what your problem is, you can better apply targeted solutions.

I’ve recently talked to my friend and colleague Cookie Rosenblum about this, and we have decided to host a free online class to help you determine if you are binge eating, compulsively overeating, or engaging in habitual pattern of emotional eating. We want to help you understand how to overcome each of these issues!

The class will be on Wednesday, November 18th at 12pmET, and you can register now.

Cookie is an expert at helping people overcome problematic overeating and emotional eating, and of course, I help people stop binge eating.

Because the term binge has become mainstream (think of “binge-watching” shows), it is sometimes applied to any behavior that seems excessive, including eating behaviors. However, binge eating is not the same as overeating, and overeating isn’t always a problem. Everyone overeats from time to time, but when it feels compulsive and too frequent, it’s definitely something to work on.

If you aren’t sure what type of eating issue you are dealing with, but you want to be free of your struggle with food, I hope you will find the upcoming online class with Cookie very helpful.

This is a one-time class and space is limited, so I encourage you to register today.

Paige Smathers

Ep 69: Intuitive, Realistic, and Sustainable Eating (Interview with Paige Smathers, RDN, CD)

amy johnson podcast (food and weight thoughts)

Ep 68: Understand & Overcome Intrusive Food & Weight Thoughts

primal brain binge eating

The Primal Brain’s Role in Normal Eating (and Binge Eating)

I received a good question today from someone struggling with binge eating regarding which part of the brain—the higher brain (rational) or the lower brain (primal, habitual, and instinctual) is involved in normal eating. This is topic I address thoroughly in my new book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, but I want to answer it briefly here—and direct you to a few other posts and podcasts episodes where you can learn more—because this issue can be confusing for some people.

The more animalistic and primal part of the brain (that I call the lower brain) has a fundamental role in eating, and when it’s functioning properly, we should be able to trust it to regulate our appetite and steer us toward good food choices—based on our taste preferences and physiological needs. However, when restrictive dieting and binge eating become involved, the primal brain becomes dysfunctional—driving the person toward massive amounts of food, as if that’s imperative for survival. To overcome this, it’s necessary to use the rational higher brain to override the primal brain’s (temporarily) faulty programming.

When you recover and end the binge eating habit, you are not banishing the primal brain. You are instead returning it to its normal role in regulating hunger and fullness and the desire for pleasurable food.  Where my opinion differs from a purely intuitive eating approach is that I don’t think we can rely completely on the the primal lower brain to guide our eating in today’s modern food environment. There are so many unnatural and over-stimulating foods that our appetite regulation system and our brain’s reward system (located in the lower brain) weren’t meant to deal with.  We need our higher brain power to override any abnormal or problematic cravings.

Eating is never a purely rational experience, nor should it be. But in today’s world, I don’t think eating can necessarily be a purely primal-brain-driven experience either.

To explore more about this topic, you can check out the following resources:

Episode 16: Eating Intuitively: Is it Right for You in Recovery From Binge Eating?

Indulging in Food: Getting over Overindulging

Overeating: Don’t Overdo Self-Control 

Listen to Your Body?

Episode 47: What if I’m Overeating After I Stop Binge Eating?

If you are ready to end your struggle with binge eating, you can download the Brain over Binge Basics to get started:

Brain over Binge PDF