Hungry to Help
Kelsey Dayton

The pangs are strongest around her meal times. It’s actual pain, churning in her stomach. She can hear her stomach growl and feel her body’s distress, the knots, aches, the sense of actual emptiness. It becomes an obsession. All she thinks about is food.

Then, seemingly miraculously, it passes. For the moment.

Shelli Johnson of Lander is hungry as she blows on her green tea on Wednesday afternoon. It is her fourth week of a 10 week self-experiment that involves fasting on Wednesday, where for 24 hours she eats nothing and drinks only water, green tea and an occasional nutrient supplement mix that she does not recommend for the taste.

Shelli Johnson
Shelli Johnson hikes in Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Mountains. (Photo Courtesy Shelli Johnson)

It began as an experiment. Johnson wanted to lose five pounds in an effort to be lighter and faster for skate-skiing this winter.

There were easier ways to lose the weight. She successfully took off 30 pounds in 2009. Fasting was not part of the program.

But Johnson didn’t want to just lose weight. She was curious about the difference between hunger and appetite. In a world where food is available all the time, Johnson realized she didn’t know when she reached for sustenance if it was because it was there or because her body actually needed it.

What she’s learned is that while she might be experimenting with hunger, there are others who are living with it.

Johnson, a life coach and avid long-distance hiker, came off a summer season where in six months she logged about 800 miles of hiking. It was October and she realized she was tired. An avid skate-skier, there was time before there’d be snow for her next sport. Yet she didn’t want to just sit back and do nothing.

Ready to set your own goals?
Ready to set your own goals? Life coach Shelli Johnson shares tips for making a plan and succeeding.

Keep it simple: Focus on one goal at a time. If you are chasing multiple goals you won’t catch any of them, Johnson says.

Keep it specific: Don’t say “I’m going to save money or I’m going to get into shape.” Say how much money you are going to save or what fitness goal you’ll reach, like running a certain distance.

Keep it small: Focus on short-term goals. Even if they are part of a larger long term accomplishment, it’s much easier mentally to accept changes for just a few weeks, and then extend them. If she’d have set the goal to fast once-a-week for a year Johnson says she’d likely already have failed. Ten weeks wasn’t too daunting.

Measure it: How will you know when you’ve succeeded? Your goal should be measurable- inches or pounds lost, money saved, time taking off your running pace, etc.

Accountability/buddy system: Tell people what you are trying to do and ask for their support. Be specific in what you need from your support system. Tell them you need encouragement, or tough love, or whatever will keep you on track. Think about what is going to be hard for you, the obstacles you’ll face and why the goal is important to you. Then share that information with your support system so they’ll know when you will need them the most.

Reflect: Ask yourself what reaching your goal is going to bring you. It’s usually deeper than the obvious. When Johnson set out to lose 30 pounds, it was in part to look better, but she realized her weight kept her from fully participating in things in her life. Her goal was not just about a number on the scale and how she looked, but also about reclaiming confidence.

Visualize: Picture yourself reaching your goal, but also visualize yourself completing the steps necessary to be successful. The person who sets the alarm clock at night is very different than the person who wakes to it for an early morning workout, Johnson says. Use visualization to help prepare you for steps that will be challenging, as well as picturing the final goal.

Pre-load: Make your decisions before you are put in situations where your will power is tested. If you are trying to lose weight and headed to a party, decide before you won’t eat cake. That way eating a slice isn’t even an option and you don’t have to battle with the decision. Everyone has an exhaustible amount of self-control, Johnson says. Deciding before-hand that you will or won’t do something means you can save your willpower for unexpected situations.

Share: Share your struggles and success throughout the way with your support system. Social media makes this easy. A post about a challenge often brings an outpouring of support, Johnson says. The reaction to news about your success is positive re-enforcement.

Johnson has always liked things that are hard — often picking the more challenging route in life on purpose. A goal-oriented person, she’s motivated not just by success, but also her curiosity in how it’s reached.

Once she gave up eating grains.

“It was drastic, but I just wanted to see what would happen,” she said.

Intrigued by the idea of fasting she looked at options that involved eating only during certain hours of the day. That’d be hard, but not hard enough, she thought. The fast she chose is for 24 hours beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday. On her non-fasting days she eats healthy.

Johnson normally eats lunch about 11 a.m. By 11:15 on Oct. 17, her first day of fasting, she was cranky.

“I was about ready to bite my own head off and eat it,” she said.

She looked at the clock and willed it to move faster. The mother of three boys Johnson often wishes time would slow. She didn’t want to wish her life would fast forward even by a day.

That was when it hit her. She was hungry by choice. Others watch the clock daily, fighting the pangs of hunger, not to lose five pounds, not out of curiosity, but because they can’t afford food.

That afternoon she decided she’d use her fast to learn about hunger in her community, raise awareness and maybe even a little money.

“It gives me something bigger to think about,” she said.

Johnson reached out to her friends and family, pledging to donate $24 for the 24 hours she fasted to local organizations, like food banks, that work to end hunger. Others picked up the cause matching donations. Donations have mostly been from her friends, but one came as far as Thailand; the person heard about her efforts through a friend and sent money in her name.

Each week Johnson picks a new local organization. She raises only a couple hundred dollars each week, but for some organizations that means another mouth fed.

“The impact is small, but important,” she said.

When she gave to Lander’s BackPack program, which provides kids with food, staff told her they had a student come to school Monday who hadn’t eaten all weekend.

“That broke my heart,” Johnson said.

It also opened her eyes. Johnson hadn’t realized hunger was such an issue in her own community. Her fasts have become a way to learn and talk about hunger in Lander, she said.

Since she started fasting Johnson lost two pounds in the first four weeks. She says she is more present, aware of her feelings and emotions. On her non-fasting days she’s conscious if she’s eating out of habit, or truly out of need. Johnson discovered the difference between hunger and appetite. Appetite is the psychological need for food that has you reaching for the refrigerator without thinking about it. Hunger, is the physical need for food, she said. Hunger is when you feel something and eat.

But more importantly, Johnson says she’s realized some people don’t have the luxury to differentiate between the two. Some are simply hungry. So Johnson is no longer fasting simply for weight loss. The self-experiment part of her plan is even less important. Johnson is now going hungry in hopes, that for at least one meal, someone else might not have to.

You can follow Johnson’s fasting on her blog at To suggest organizations for her to fast for write her at

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Tonya, I personally know the author and Shelli and I can assure you there is nothing manipulative or half-hearted about how this was written OR by Shelli’s cause. This entire fasting started out as a way to get Shelli prepared for ski season and to hit her own personal goal. It took her NO TIME at all to realize that a one day a week fast for her was so much bigger to others in our own community. She decided to dedicate her once a week fast each week to local organizations that help feed families in our community. She shares her journey each week and invites others to donate as well. A lot of these organizations don’t advertise locally to bring more awareness to the good they are providing to families. Instead, they operate quietly and work hard to give people the meals they need. There are organizations in our community that a lot of us don’t even know of, let alone know how to help. Shelli is reaching out and asking people for ideas and contact information for those organizations (including the reservation). I LOVE that Shelli is bringing awareness to these organizations each week. If the donations that come in on her behalf are enough to feed only one family in need then she’s done what she set out to do. Shelli has a great heart and has a way of bringing people together. I’m sorry you feel this is half hearted and too small but what exactly are YOU doing to help stop hunger in our community? Tanya , in my own opinion no gesture to help others is too small so kudos to anyone out there that thinks about more than themselves. I’d almost bet that what Shelli is doing will affect someone else in our community to do something very similar. I suggest you meet her for coffee sometime! Try not to belittle the idea of her giving up grains until you’ve actually met and talked to her. You might just find out that she didn’t give up grains for one week like you mentioned but she’s made a personal lifestyle change to give up grains. When you meet her you should ask her how often she does eat grains (you’ll find it’s very minimal). It’s all about personal sacrifice and every one of us has different struggles. Some struggle more than others but we all struggle with something. Obviously if one struggles to give up grains, or coffee, chocolate, soda or even shopping, that might seem simple and ridiculous compared to people that are going hungry, but it doesn’t mean we don’t care about others and don’t want to raise awareness and help those that need it. Like I said before, I know Kelsey and I know Shelli personally and I highly suggest you reach out to them. You might be surprised at what you come away with!!

  2. I have no issue with the charity nor Shelli, but the way the article is written makes the cause feel manipulative and half-hearted. *Cheer* ‘By sponsoring someone’s weight-loss plan, you too can benefit the world and feel good about yourself!’ The article could have been much more effective in helping Shelli in connecting people to this important issue if the reporter wrote the article in a way that briefly touched on the weight-loss plan and really emphasized the effort and compassion, and could have potentially enticed more community member’s on board – not only with the social experiment, but the charity, too.

  3. Gave up grains for a week…? Drastic? I believe there are entire US cities that don’t eat grains (hello, Boulder?), but in Wyoming this is an indication of great personal sacrifice? And I really can’t tell – throughout the entire article – if this is about vanity and sports performance, or a legit compassionate attempt to connect with the vast majority of people around the world, and for heaven’s sake, especially our community including the reservation that is our neighbor. I really want to give Shelli much, much more credit (I don’t know her) and hope that the reporter over-simplified “the cause.” UGH This story emphasizes how far “behind the times” Wyoming is and how disconnected our communities are from each other and the rest of the world.