The Roots of FOMO


In recent posts we dissected the legendary McDonald’s slogan, “You deserve a break today” and the psychological condition known as “fear of missing out” (FOMO), and linked them together. Sure, people have always feared missing out on a celebrity-filled party, or the chance to water ski, or to see a visiting dignitary’s motorcade.

Also, it certainly occurred to some humans, through the ages, to focus their FOMO on food. But there is a case to be made that the infamous advertising jingle was instrumental in bringing food into grotesquely disproportionate prominence as a FOMO target. The fast-food corporation’s insidious motto made it official, and created a turning point.

For, clinical psychologist Anita Sanz took the FOMO-food connection all the way back to prehistory, when awareness of a potential nutrient was what separated the successful hunters and gatherers from the deceased ones. She informed readers that…

[…] we actually have a part of our brain that is specialized for sensing if we are being left out. That specialized part of the brain is a part of the limbic system, the amygdala, whose job it is to detect whether something could be a threat to our survival.

To exist in this hyper-vigilant state is nerve-wracking, but it enables an organism to avoid both predators and starvation. The individuals who endured the stress lived long enough to pass on their DNA, producing descendants whose sensitive amygdalae helped them to perceive existential threats. Sanz pointed out:

This could include people who tend to be anxious and socially anxious, those who have experienced some kind of emotional trauma in the past, and/or who tend to be obsessive or compulsive (or have an actual diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Coach Jenny Eden cites a very pragmatic reason for food FOMO. As her clients who were raised in large families reminded her, “If you weren’t fast and furious with your eating and grabbed what you could, you’d miss out on dinner.”

There are still people alive who grew up in the Great Depression, and many younger people have lived, and still live, in circumstances of such scarcity that they can hardly be blamed for scarfing up every bit of sustenance that comes their way. Eden says:

Food FOMO is a real anxiety that is also often the precursor for eating rapidly, overeating, binge eating and developing a disordered relationship with food.

Fitness coach Jill Coleman reminds her readers that:

We think “comfort food” is supposed to comfort us, when in actuality, it makes us more remorseful, UNcomfortable and physically worse later. But in the moment, it’s hard to be aware of that.

This is what mindfulness is all about, the ability to be present in the moment and successfully handle the million challenges such as:

  • Scenario #1 — You’ll probably never be in Paris again, and will definitely never again encounter these heavenly croissants.
  • Scenario #2 — It’s your best friend’s wedding and you helped design the cake. Of course you have to eat it.
  • Scenario #3 — You’re visiting the parents and it might be the last-ever chance to enjoy your Mom’s special grilled-cheese sandwich — just like the ones she made when you were sick in bed.
  • Scenario #4 — It’s the church’s annual Pancake Breakfast, and as the pastor, you’re expected to help with the cooking — and the eating.
  • Scenario #5 — Out for brunch with your spouse and another couple, you manage to irritate everyone by taking a ridiculously long time deciding what to order.

We could list examples all day. Life provides unlimited opportunities for food FOMO, largely because humans tend to cherish the belief that every meeting of family, friends or affinity groups must include food. Otherwise, everyone will miss out on the sacred experience of breaking bread with people important to their emotional well-being. To change that would be to change ingrained and time-honored cultural mores, which is a very tall order indeed.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What’s the Psychology Behind the Fear of Missing Out?,”, 09/30/15
Source: “Do you have Food FOMO?,”, undated
Source: “Do You Have FOMO Around Food?,”, 11/09/13
Photo by aka kirara on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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