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.

Embracing Imperfection Binge Eating Recovery

Ep. 93: Embracing Imperfection (with Coach Julie)

Marcus Kain

Ep. 90: Letting Go of Unrealistic Recovery Goals and Unhealthy Fitness Standards (with Marcus Kain)

Gillian Young

Ep. 81: Getting Over Night Eating Syndrome (Interview with Gillian Young)

how to stick to a diet not binge

The Brain over Binge Approach Is Not How to Stick to a Diet

I want you to escape the daily pain that bingeing brings. I want you to stop eating in an out-of-control way that makes you feel sick and ashamed. I want you to get your life back, so that you can pursue what is important to you. I also want you to eat in a way that works for you and makes you feel nourished and satisfied.

I do not want you to make it your goal to eat perfectly. I do not want you to think that stopping binge eating also means learning how to stick to a strict eating plan. I do not want you to feel like you have to avoid all unhealthy foods, or say no to yourself every time you want to eat something just for pleasure, or stop acting on all desires for food that is not in line with a certain diet.

My goal is to teach you how to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately; my goal is not to teach you to how to stick to a diet. This post is inspired by Episode 49 and Episode 12 of my podcast, and I hope it helps clear up the intent of the Brain over Binge approach.

Binge eating recovery includes giving up restrictive dieting

If you are familiar with my blog, podcast, or books, you know about the strategy of dismissing binge urges, which is the practice of separating yourself from the lower brain’s desire to binge (listen to Episode 5), and not acting on the thoughts and feelings that encourage binge eating (listen to Episode 7).

You can also learn more about dismissing urges to binge in my free 30-page guide, the Brain over Binge Basics.

What I teach is for ending binge eating, and although I do believe that similar methods can be used to help with other problematic eating habits, I want to make it clear that the Brain over Binge approach is never about learning how to stick to a restrictive diet. It is never about helping you follow rigid weight-loss plans, or helping you eat less than you physically need—because that would be extremely harmful to your recovery.

A big part of my approach is about helping you give up restrictive dieting and implement nourishing eating habits that work for you. I also believe in learning to allow yourself all types of food in moderation, and avoiding the harmful mindset that can develop when you have “forbidden” foods. (You can learn more about giving up the dieting mentality in Episode 48). I realize that not everyone can eat all types of food due to certain health conditions, so another way of saying this is that I believe in eating in the least restrictive way that’s possible for you. 

Dismissing too many eating urges is harmful

Over the years of working with binge eaters, I’ve found that some people want to ignore my advice about eating enough, and only want to focus on dismissing urges—and this does not work and prevents recovery. Some people even want to take it a step further and start dismissing not only binge urges, but urges to eat anything that is not in line with a strict diet plan. When used in this way,  dismissing urges becomes a dieting strategy in and of itself, which is the opposite of my intention.

The only way that dismissing binge urges works to get rid of binge eating for good is if you’re also eating adequately. If you are dismissing too many desires to eat, then you’ll remain in a food-deprived, survival-instinct-driven state that fuels binge eating.

Now, I know that creators of some diets or weight loss plans might step in here and argue that their eating plans are adequate and not overly restrictive. It’s possible for that to be true in some cases—meaning that the way of eating required for a certain “diet” actually does meet your physical needs and nourishes you well. But that’s not the type of diet I’m talking about, and it’s also not the issue I’m raising today. This post is about clarifying the intention of the Brain over Binge approach; it’s not about evaluating the merits of each and every diet plan that is out there.

Not sticking to a diet is not binge eating

Even if you could argue that a certain “diet” is technically an adequate and nourishing way to eat, my approach is still not meant to be a way for you to dismiss every urge to veer from that plan. I don’t think it’s necessary to have perfect eating habits, and in many ways, trying to get your eating habits exactly right is counterproductive in recovery. This is why Brain over Binge is not and should not be used as a “how to stick to a diet” strategy—that is contrary to the message I want to send.

Dismissing urges is not a way to avoiding eating any food that’s not “keto,” or “paleo,” or “vegan.” It is not a way to stop eating anything at all when you are fasting, and it is not a way to say no to all processed foods or any foods you think are unhealthy.

Eating sugar is not bingeing, eating carbs is not bingeing, eating meat is not bingeing, eating junk food is not bingeing—unless of course, you are bingeing on these things. Likewise, eating when you think you shouldn’t be eating, or when a diet plan says you shouldn’t be eating is not bingeing—unless of course you are bingeing at those times.

There is certainly value in not acting on all of the food cravings that you have. There are benefits of being able to observe your thoughts about eating and then to choose which thoughts to act on and which to ignore. There are benefits of being able to decide to eat foods that make you feel good. My approach is never about giving up on health. It’s never about eating anything you want, anytime you want, without regard for the effect food has on you. It is absolutely appropriate to not follow your every desire for food.

Furthermore, if there’s a certain way of eating that works well for you and is adequate and satisfying, then it may make sense to dismiss thoughts that cause you to veer too much from that way of eating—and this is especially true if you need to eat a certain way for medical reasons. I realize this may seem like a subtle distinction, but deciding to eat in a specific way to take care of yourself is very different from following a restrictive diet and then trying to dismiss urges to eat anything off of that diet. For example, someone with a dairy sensitivity who chooses to dismiss thoughts of eating dairy is not the same as someone who implements a strict calorie deficit and then tries to dismiss urges to eat any additional calories.

Get rid of the binge problem, don’t aim for perfect eating

To further explain why stopping the binge eating habit does not include learning how to stick to a diet, I’m going to end with an excerpt from the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (from the Healthy Eating chapter). I hope that reading the following few paragraphs helps you better understand the purpose of the Brain over Binge approach, and the purpose of separating your higher brain from your lower brain—in a way that promotes recovery, not dieting.

“It’s common for binge eaters to mistakenly merge the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants any unhealthy food. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of all junk food by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain and their higher brain as their “healthy eating” brain. I don’t think this is useful, especially when first trying to quit binge eating, because it can lead to an “all or nothing” trap. When you start trying to view all of your cravings for anything unhealthy as neurological junk, it can be overwhelming.

It can lead you to believe that if you follow a desire for a dessert or some processed or convenience food, then your lower brain has already won, so you’ll be primed to believe any thoughts that say you “might as well binge.” You don’t actually have a good brain and a bad brain, because both the lower and the higher brain are necessary for a rich human existence. Your lower brain, with its pleasure centers, is indeed behind most of your junk-food cravings, but everyone has those. The lower brain also causes you to crave and take pleasure in delicious, healthy food as well, as desire for food is rarely a purely rational experience. Recovery is about trying to get rid of the “glitch” in your reward system, not banish the system altogether.

Craving french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you. If you choose to follow those brain signals and have the fries, great—enjoy them! If you choose not to, then that’s fine too—have some organic carrot sticks with almond butter instead, and enjoy those! Don’t think that if you choose the french fries, you are giving in to a binge urge. Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge. It won’t. There will be other opportunities for fries. The methods and advice in this book are for quitting binge eating, not for sticking to very strict, healthy-food-only eating plans and banishing all cravings for anything unhealthy.”  (pgs. 262-263)

I encourage you to find a balance in your eating that works for you, but remember, you never have to eat perfectly!

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If you want extra guidance in learning how to eat normally, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for $18.99 per month.

You can also get personalized support and accountability with one-on-one coaching or group coaching.

Nan Simonsen Aging Powerfully

Ep. 77: Ending Bulimia, Reclaiming Health, and Aging Powerfully (Interview with Nan Simonsen)

NLP and Eating Disorders

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