Expert Insight: Dieting and the Fear of Famine

Two rows of empty supermarket shelves.

“Our ancestors did not have a constant supply of food. When a large animal – a whale, a bison, a woolly mammoth or an elephant – was killed, everyone feasted, gorged… it might be weeks or months before another big kill, so large amounts had to be eaten quickly and then stored in the body for the times of scarcity that were sure to come.  

This is an ancient or atavistic memory that calls us to eat all we can now, even if we are not hungry, just in case there won’t be any food tomorrow… there is something deep in our primitive brain that still fears starvation, scarcity, famine.” – Jan Chozen Bays, “Mindful Eating”

Remember the panic-buying we witnessed when the Covid-19 crisis first hit?

Here in the UK, there wasn’t a food shortage but just the possibility of one made people panic – ironically bringing about the very shortages they feared.

There were similar experiences worldwide: supermarkets struggling to keep up with demand as people began to hoard food and supplies.

The danger of scarcity led to stockpiling.

This is what happens when we diet.

When we exert outside control on our eating, rather than respect internal cues, our bodies perceive the restriction as scarcity or famine.

When we break the diet, as we inevitably will, we’re compelled by a primal instinct to eat more than we need, in order to prepare for further food shortages.

When we say “I’ll start the diet again tomorrow”, we confirm the impending deprivation and trigger the order to binge.

Our bodies store the excess food we eat as fat to help us prepare for future famines. We hate them for gaining weight but it’s not their fault. They’re simply doing what they’re supposed to do.

Our bodies aren’t to blame, it’s dieting that’s the issue.

When we begin to find autonomy with our eating, we focus on giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat exactly what we want. In doing so, we prove to our minds and our bodies there’s no famine, no scarcity. Therefore, there’s no need to “stock up” by binge eating.

It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the process of recovery because it swims against the tidal wave of diet culture, but it’s possibly the most rewarding.

Every time we give ourselves permission to eat what we really want, we chip away at our old diet mindset and move a step closer to making peace with food.

Ultimately, we can learn to relax and enjoy food, and that fear of famine “deep in our primitive brain” can stand down, safe in the knowledge we’ll never diet again.

©️ Julie de Rohan 2020.



Chozen Bays, J. (2009) “Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food”. Boston: Shambhala.

19 thoughts on “Expert Insight: Dieting and the Fear of Famine

  1. That’s a neat analogy, Julie – the hoarding in the current crisis and our own body’s hoarding in a ‘diet crisis’. I felt the urge to hoard like everyone at the start, but luckily we have a tiny freezer and hate cluttered cupboards so I didn’t 🙂 I’m still not used to the once-a-week grocery shop idea, so I do tend to buy more than we need, just to be sure. I guess that’s just like our bodies need to ‘stock up’ just to be sure we won’t starve. So interesting! Thanks, and hope all is still well with you.

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    1. Just a whiff of a possible food shortage was enough to make people start to hoard. I definitely felt a bit panicky to begin with, but have settled down. It’s made me appreciate food even more – my goal is not to waste anything and I’ve been pretty ingenious at using up absolutely everything! We’re still fine here. How is life with you? Is the lockdown lifting where you are?

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      1. The lockdown is starting to lift here and it feels too soon! I can keep working from home, and there’s still no school for the kids, so we’re going to just stay home still. We may go further for a forest hike than we have been, but even that’s within walking distance if we’re feeling energetic 🙂 No swimming or beaches open yet, but since we had snow last week, that’s no great loss, lol.

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      2. We’ve had some lifting of restrictions which people are taking advantage of but, like you, I’m wary about venturing out too much just yet, and am fortunate to be able to work from home. Wow – snow! By contrast, it’s due to be an unseasonably warm 26 degrees tomorrow here. Weird…

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      3. Snow in May is extremely uncommon here… and we’ve got three days of “25 feeling like 30” in the week ahead. It’s a *little* challenging for farmers!

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  2. I really like this. Makes a lot of sense. We didn’t panic buy or stockpile just carried on as normal. Very interesting read. Thank you xx

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  3. Thank you for sharing!!… when I were growing up on the farm, we would spend spring, summer and early fall gathering enough food to last through the winter as back then one didn’t go shopping as in today’s society, and the following spring the process would start over again to replace as needed…
    I do the same today, not panic buying and I do not eat it as fast as I buy it… 🙂

    “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”. Isaac Asimov

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    1. It’s hard to believe, given the convenience of supermarkets, that that’s how it was for all of us at one time. Many thanks for sharing your experience, Dutch, good to hear from you.


  4. Very aptly portrayed. I never thought of the binge eating circumstances just before dieting in such way. I have also witnessed the stockpiling phenomenon and there are still people doing that. Buying for a month or so in one day and then there is a scarcity of resources. Though things are better now. Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

    Best wishes from The Strong Traveller and have a great day.

    Do have a look at my blog whenever you find the time. There are some travel and lifestyle content which you may find interesting. Your thoughts will surely be very valuable. Stay connected. 🙂

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