Ann knew she was experiencing some health problems as a result of being seriously overweight. She had very little energy, her knees hurt all the time, her menstrual cycle was messed up, and her cholesterol level was dangerously high. She knew she needed to lose weight – and the first step was changing how she ate. But she was finding it very difficult. She sat on the exam table and told me, “I’m an emotional eater. It’s the way I handle stress.”

The good news is that Ann realizes there is a difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Feeding emotional hunger with physical food may lessen the “Feed me!” screaming in your brain, but that only lasts a little while. When the underlying need has not been met, the mental demand for “food” only gets louder once again.

My friend Kathrine Lee likes to say, “It’s not what you’re eating: it’s what’s eating you!” Understanding – and meeting – the different needs we have with appropriate “nourishment” will make a huge difference in our health and happiness.

For the many of us who reach for food to quiet any hunger we feel, it may take some thinking and self-study to truly understand what our body and mind is really asking for. Here are some different kinds of hunger we can misinterpret as a need for food:

  1. Thirst. Yes, many people feel “I’m hungry” when they are really thirsty. A cold glass of ice water (flavored if necessary) may satisfy what your brain is screaming for better than food. Dehydration can lead to irritability, headaches, fatigue, and just plain feeling bad. And no – alcohol, carbonated beverages, or caffeine will not do the trick!
  2. <Lack of Energy. How many times have you reached for food as a pick-me-up during the late-morning, late-afternoon, or late-evening hours when you feel your mind and body dragging. Eating processed food often gives a quick energy surge from a rapid increase in blood sugar, only to result in a “crash” later on. And turning to caffeine or more sugar is not the answer.
  3. Fatigue. I often used food to stay awake while studying for exams in medical school, or making long drives across country. But what my brain and body really needed was sleep. Food does not resolve the tiredness: only rest will do that.
  4. Stress relief. It’s something to do, something in your hands, something in your mouth. You grab some food while watching TV, working on a boring project, or waiting for someone else to show up. You reach for food when your spouse yells at you, or the collection agency calls, or your child comes home with a bad report card. Food is an easy “go-to” when you’re stressed (or angry, or afraid, or otherwise upset), but provides a very poor outcome – and the stress is still there.
  5. Loneliness. Hungry for some tender loving care? Sometimes what we really need is a hug, but when no one is around to provide one, food can become the substitute. Of course the nagging need in our soul for human connection is not satisfied by food, but only temporarily covered up.

There are many reasons we eat, and there are many variations in these hungers we feel. Next time you feel the urge to reach for food ask yourself, “Is it food I need, or something else?” Find a way to meet what your body or soul truly needs, and you won’t have to worry about the side effects.

Your turn: What are you hungry for? What do you find yourself trying to feed that hunger with? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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