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An Introduction to Head Hunger

I say food records, and most would say “what” you ate and “how much” you ate. Is this the whole story though? Not usually. An importance piece of increasing food awareness is understanding “why” you eat as well.

Yes, your belly growls or you begin to feel weak or irritable or dizzy. I like to call this belly-growling hunger. Another type of hunger is head hunger. You may eat when feeling bored or stressed, when watching TV or driving, when in pain or tired, when celebrating or as a reward, or when feeling anxious or overwhelmed. These are all triggers for head hunger, and these triggers are why eating can become so complicated.

I firmly believe you cannot develop a more healthy lifestyle without considering not only “what” or “how much” you are eating, but also, “why”.

If you notice a very strong urge to eat that you’d relate to head hunger, most would assume he or she is not to eat. If only it were this simple. Restricting food (even when eating related to head hunger) will likely only trigger feelings of deprivation, guilt when you do indulge, and so then, we overindulge. Not so helpful.

Instead of even more effort to restrict food, why not try a different approach? One that empowers choice and enjoyment when you choose to eat. I have a few thoughts on coping more effectively with head hunger below.

1. Are you eating enough?

To more cope with any urge to eat, you must be sure you are eating enough earlier in the day. When you eat enough, you leave a meal feeling both full and satisfied, and in doing so, you will likely notice less frequent and less intense urges to eat later. Eating enough includes a variety of foods on your plate in an adequate amount.

Before you try to manage your response to any head hunger experience, first take a look at why this strong urge to eat is even happening. First things first, eat enough at a meal to leave that meal feeling both full and satisfied.

2. Permission to eat.

Remember, restrict food --> feel deprived --> indulge --> guilt from eating --> overeat or restrict again. And the worst part? You probably didn’t even enjoy the foods you were eating. That is guilt, and that is why permission to eat all foods is so important.

For most, the scariest part of giving yourself permission to eat the foods that you would typically restrict is a fear of overeating these foods. And to be honest, you may overeat after that first bite. But this is temporary. You will quickly realize that you will always have permission to enjoy these foods, so why overeat? Overeating makes the eating experience so much less pleasurable. And weren’t you eating the food for enjoyment to begin with (head hunger), not necessarily nutrition (belly-growling hunger)?

3. What do you need?

And now, I will throw a curve ball for you. Just because you have given yourself permission to eat the foods you had previously been restricting (and truly enjoy) doesn’t mean you will choose to eat the food in that moment. The permission is there for you to be able to make the choice without feelings of guilt or obligation.

You are choosing to cope with these head hunger triggers (boredom, stress, isolation, reward, etc.) with either food or a non-food alternative. Non-food alternatives are any activity that does not involve food or drink (which leaves chewing gum or drinking a glass of water off this list). These activities are not a better or worse option than eating food to cope, just different.

In that moment then, when you are experiencing a strong urge to eat and you relate it back to head hunger, ask yourself, “What do I need?” Most would immediately think to redirect, since that is what diet culture has taught us—restriction!

Ask yourself again, “What do I need?” but this time, in the voice of a caretaker. That caretaker is not critical of you and wants to best meet your needs, whether that be with food or another option. Now what? Both food and redirecting to a non-food alternative are equal options. This allows us to choose what we need most in that moment to help cope with that initial head hunger trigger (boredom, stress, isolation, reward, etc.). Go ahead and take action. Either indulge in the food you were craving or redirect to a non-food alternative.

4. It is progress.

Head hunger in combination with diet culture makes eating complicated. Give yourself time to better distinguish between head hunger and belly-growling hunger. And then, give yourself even more time to learn that it is okay to eat foods you enjoy. And after that, give yourself some time to explore non-food alternatives that may better meet your needs.

It takes time. Time to learn more healthy eating habits and to develop a more healthy relationship with food. Do not expect perfection, but rather, progress over time.

Healthy Regards,

Gretchen Stroberg, RD, LD, CDCES

Registered Dietitian & Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

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