WANTing vs NEEDing Food - 3 Strategies for Determining if You're Actually Hungry

  Image courtesy of   Ambro     FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro 


Can you identify your body's true hunger signals? Can you tell when you need to eat (more) or when you're full and have eaten enough?

If it's a struggle... that's ok! Join the club!  ;)  Identifying your body's true hunger signs can be a tricky task.

Many of us have lost the ability to detect our body's true hunger signals.

This could happen for a number of reasons. The signals of our hunger hormones ghrelin  (the rumbly tummy "hey, I'm hungry" hormone) and leptin  (the "ooh, guess I'm full" hormone) could be malfunctioning. Perhaps we've forcefully ignored or repressed our body's physical hunger signs so much so that we no longer recognize them. Maybe we're eating frequently throughout the day and/or in large quantities where our stomachs are continually occupied and we've lost the sense of empty stomach hunger. 

Whatever the reason may be, the good news is this: you CAN relearn how to identify your body's true hunger signals.

Here are 3 ways to reconnect:


Strategy 1 - Identify the Origin of Your Hunger 

Determining the origin of your hunger is key.

When you feel hunger or an urge to eat outside of regular snack or mealtime, or beyond a logical portion size, start by identifying the origin of the urge. Ask yourself, "What is telling me that I'm hungry and need to eat right now? Is it my body or my brain?

Why does this matter? Well, thinking you're hungry is different than being hungry.

There's a significant difference between wanting food and needing food. Here's how it works:

  • wanting food -- this urge manifests itself cognitively, as a thought or desire of the mind or emotion and it originates in the brain.
  • needing food -- this urge manifests itself physically, as a biological or cellular energy demand of the body and it originates in the body.

Chew on that for a bit.  ;)


Strategy 2: Do the Plain, Raw Veggie Test

If you find yourself considering eating outside of your normal mealtime, or beyond reasonable portion size at a meal or snack, you might consider asking yourself, "Would I eat a plain, raw _____ right now?[insert the veggie of your choice]

This is a good test that can help you distinguish between a WANT to eat (originating in the mind) and a NEED to eat

As long as your are honest and selective of the food you choose to fill in the blank.

I suggest you use a plain, raw veggie -- one that you're not overly fond of, but will tolerate if you're hungry... be it carrots, broccoli, celery, etc. Something you don't like to eat all the time.

Why a plain, raw veggie?

Well, personally, if I asked myself "Would I eat macadamia nuts?" (arguably a "healthy" food) it wouldn't be a good test of real hunger for me. To some, macadamia nuts are boring and nothing special. But for me, macadamia nuts are (too) delicious and I know that I can and will eat them anytime.  

I'd go as far as to say I also can't ask myself, "Would I eat beets?" Even though beets are a (root) veggie, I absolutely adore them. I could eat them anytime. To me they taste sweet (likely because they have more sugar/starch than most veggies). Since I tend to be hyper-reactive to a sugary sweet taste, beets are not a good "Would I eat plain, raw ___?" test for me.

Personally, I choose carrots for this test. I tolerate them, but I'm not particularly drawn to them, so they're a good tool in distinguishing whether I'm actually physically hungry.


If you find that you're physically hungry enough to eat a few plain, raw carrots (or whatever veggie works for you), go for it! Even if you end up eating a few more carrots than you needed, the negative impacts are minimal. That's the great thing about veggies.  :)

If you're not hungry enough to eat a few plain, raw carrots, consider holding out until the next appropriate snack or mealtime. Remember, thoughts are not needs, nor are they required action items. Your brain may merely be suggesting that you eat -- just as it might suggest you wear your sweatpants to work (which you likely ignore and don't do).

When it comes to hunger thoughts, you always have a choice.


Strategy 3: Look for Physical Signs of Hunger

The body has built-in hunger communication signals, over which we have no cognitive control.

You're probably familiar with these signals, even if you haven't experienced them recently:

  • rumbly tummy
  • hunger pangs
  • dizzy, weak, faint
  • indications of low blood sugar

Try to notice these signs as early as possible -- the more prominent they become, the more urgently your body is trying to tell you that it NEEDs fuel.

So go ahead and honor its request.  :)