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Food and Fear

  • Eating

A question came up recently on the Food and Feelings message board ( about eating out of fear that you’ll be hungry later and won’t have food available. This automatic deprivational response is an excellent example of emotion based on irrational belief leading to dysfunctional behavior. (For further reading on fear and food, see my Food and Feelings Workbook.)

By the time we become adults, our fears are generally so long-standing that we don’t even recognize them as adaptive responses we learned in childhood. If you want to overcome an eating disorder, you not only have to notice how your fears drive your eating behaviors, but also understand how they came about. Fears of not being able to soothe, feed, or take care of yourself arise in two ways. We learn what is “right” for us by having our caretakers do things to and for us and internalizing this behavior. If they keep us warm, dry, fed, and soothed in childhood, we learn that it is possible to have our needs met and how to do it. If we don’t get our needs met, we become fearful that our needs are unmeetable.

The second way we learn to fear that we can’t take care of ourselves is when we are older and are thwarted in trying to meet our needs. Maybe we’re hungry and there’s no food around or we ask for food but don’t receive it. Perhaps we’re even shamed for expressing our desires. Instead of recognizing that the need is valid and the response is invalid, we turn the situation around and come to believe that what we want is inappropriate or too much to ask. This is particularly true if we try hard to take care of our physical needs and are told (or it’s implied that) those needs are not appropriate.

When you fear being hungry, what are you really saying—that food won’t be available, you won’t have access to it, you’ll feel guilty about being hungry again, you shouldn’t want to fill your belly, you’re not capable of nourishing yourself, or you want too much?

If you wish to overcome your food fears, you have to understand the beliefs that underpin them. Make a list of a dozen beliefs about hunger and your ability to tend to it. Pay attention to cognitions that imply you can’t trust yourself, can’t be responsible for feeding yourself, or shouldn’t want food. Reframe all your irrational beliefs into ones that support the abundance of food in the world and underscore your ability to take care of yourself. Work on accepting that fear is not truth, but merely a perception that can be changed. Change your beliefs and free yourself from your fears about food.