Hierarchy of Food Needs

By Katie, 5:47 am

If you’re reading this right now, you probably have an interest in food. Perhaps you love cooking. Maybe you love trying new kinds of cuisine at different types of restaurants. Perhaps you’re an athlete who carefully uses food to fuel your workouts. Maybe you even write a food blog.

Or it could be that your relationship with food is a little rocky, a bit more love-and-hate. In any case, you are probably reading this blog because you take some kind of interest in food.

Which means that you have enough of it. Which means that you have access to a steady stream of it. Which means that you are in a position to make informed, conscious choices about it.

I’d like to start out this week by asking all of us to remember those for whom that is not the case, to remember that being in a position to take such an interest in food is a blessing in and of itself.

Those of you who studied psychology may recognize this diagram. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – an illustration of Maslow’s theory that humans must first have certain, basic needs met before we can move on to pursue other, higher needs.

For example, if we don’t have our physiological needs met (like food and water) or our safety needs met (say, we live in a war-torn country) we’re probably not too concerned about building up our self-confidence or finding a career that fosters our creativity. Because we’re just trying to survive.

Interestingly, I recently came across a related pyramid through the blog Sociological Images. This one, however, diagrams only our food needs.

Lisa from Sociological Images writes:

The graphic suggests that getting enough food to eat is the most important thing to people.  Having food be acceptable (e.g., not rotten, something you are not allergic to) comes second.  Once those two things are in place, people hope for reliable access to food and only then do they begin to worry about taste.  If people have enough, acceptable, reliable, good-tasting food, then they seek out novel food experiences and begin to make choices as to what to eat for instrumental purposes (e.g., number of calories, nutritional balance).

Of course I’ve always known that I’m extremely blessed to live such a secure life, with all of my basic needs met. But seeing it visually illustrated like this made me pause and try putting myself in another’s shoes for a moment. I exist entirely at the top of this pyramid: my food decisions – dictated completely by taste, the enjoyment of eating, and the nutritional composition of the food – are indeed higher-level choices.

But the choices made by many other people, in this country and around the globe, are determined by much more basic needs; they aren’t concerned about calories or about trying new types of cuisine because they’re too busy making sure that the whole family gets enough to eat, that no one is forced to go to bed hungry. I cannot even begin to imagine what that is like.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having a passion for all things food, or that we should all feel inundated with guilt about our blessings. What I am saying is that today I am taking a moment to pause and be truly thankful for those blessings. I’m taking a moment to think about those who don’t know what it’s like to fantasize excitedly about what to cook for dinner, who instead worry about whether or not it will even exist. I’m taking a moment to thoughtfully consider what I can personally do to reach out to those people – to use my blessings to make their situations just a tiny bit easier – and I hope you will join me.

What kinds of things do you do or would you like to do to help people who are hungry? Have you ever volunteered in a soup kitchen or donated money to an organization that works to end hunger?


Have you ever experienced a moment that simply stopped you in your tracks and made you say THANK YOU for all of the blessings in your life? Seeing that pyramid really hit home for me; I realized that even though I struggle with food, I don’t have to worry about getting enough of it to survive. I need to be more grateful for that.

34 Responses to “Hierarchy of Food Needs”

  1. Great post. Sometimes I think we tend to get so caught up in our lives that we don’t realize that there are people who truly need help out there.
    I’ve worked in a soup kitchen on more than 1 occasion, and I always find it very humbling. I think everyone should do it for at least one day, because it really makes you appreciate what you have. It also reinforces that there is something you can do to help.
    Working in the soup kitchen made me realize how incredibly blessed I am to have the life that I do.

  2. Tina says:

    This post is so interesting. I always consider myself blessed to have access to quality food, but never thought about it in the hierarchy sense. I loved studying psychology in school and like relating to things in different ways.

  3. This is such a great read – I never really thought to compare food to Maslow’s pyraimid – but I am ALWAYS thinking how lucky I am to be provided with what I am. I complain all too often about the little things – and immediately take it back because I know that whatever it is about, I’m most likely lucky to have it in the first place.
    I have never worked in a soup kitchen, and being in a small city it’s hard to see the scope of hunger in America, even though I know it exists quite excessively. I do, however, go through my cabinets every so often and find stuff or buy stuff to donate.

  4. Great post and very unique for the health blogosphere.

    My parents are the lead volunteers for the food pantry in the town I grew up in so I have been raised in an environment where helping others has always been encouraged. I routinely volunteer food to the food pantry and encourage my students to do the same when we have food drives.

    I work in a school that has the two polar ends of life attending it- the richest of the richest and the poorest of the poor. When I first started teaching I had a first grader who’s father was murdered the year before. On top of that she never had clean clothes and was always hungry. I’d send her with a box of graham crackers weekly for dinner… I didn’t know what else to do! It was eye-opening.

    • Katie says:

      Wow, that really is eye-opening! It’s so interesting that your school has such extremes.

  5. Wow, what a fantastic post. I never thought about how how lucky I am in that particular context before. Thank you for reminding me.
    I think I’ve had a number of those thankful “aha moments” though I unfortunately cannot remember most of them. I do remember one– though it isn’t on the level of hunger, it certainly would effect my mental health if I weren’t so lucky. Since I’ve been in college, I have become acutely aware of how lucky I am that my parents don’t put tons of pressure on me to get all A’s or to major in something specific, etc. They know I put enough pressure on myself to succeed and that it wouldn’t help me if they did that. And they believe I should study and be what I want, not what they want. I have many friends who don’t have it this way I’m thankful that I do.

  6. Candice says:

    I love this post! It’s important to remember those that are less fortunate than us. I usually try to give canned goods and other acceptable products to drives when I see them. Sometimes I use the free coupons I get for items and donate those things. My local store will give me free canned vegetables, which I do not eat. But I know others need that food. I also purchase canned goods that I would eat to donate as well.

    Last Thanksgiving, I earned enough points at my store to get a free turkey. My mom did as well, and we only needed one turkey. So I redeemed mine and donated it to the local shelter. My husband also gets a free ham at Christmas from his employer. Instead of taking it, he opted to donate his, a service the employer offers. We could have taken the turkey and ham and froze them for another time. But we didn’t need them and another family benefited from that.

  7. Cara says:

    Great post, Katie! I have thought about this to the extent that I feel blessed to have a passion for food that helps me maintain a healthy lifestyle. That enthusiasm serves as quite an advantage. But you are right, we must also think about those who are just struggling to get basic nourishment, nevermind have much of a choice in what to eat or access to myriad ingredients to prepare food to their liking. Amen.

  8. Yeah when I was in hospital in Japan thinking I was going to die without an English translation or family. AND EVEN THEN…I struggled giving up the food that caused me to be sick…cause of my mental state. Amazing what addiction does to our minds.

  9. I totally remember that Hierarchy of Needs pyramid from college psych 101 !
    I love the Food Hierarchy pyramid!! that is monumental (ha-double entendre ;)
    anyway, every morning and night when my daughter and i pray together we thank God for giving us everything we need, including GOOD FOOD AND CLEAN WATER.
    I NEVER want to take that for granted, especially since what I CAN eat is limited due to all my food intolerances.
    It is such a LUXURY for us to be able to eat what we want, when we want, how we want, and how much we want.

  10. This is really cool! It’s good to take a moment to remember all you have to be grateful for. I recently saw an Oprah with Michael Pollan talking about eating “real” food. They showed a clip from Food, Inc (I think) where they sent a family to the grocery who was on a tight budget. They said the reason they buy the fast food burgers is that they can get more calories for less money where as the same amount of money in broccoli wouldn’t help them much in their caloric needs. The daughter wanted a pear, but it was too expensive. They bought heavily processed “junk” food instead because it was more bang for your buck. I honestly have never thought about how much broccoli or a pear costs. It made me think about how lucky I am to have the luxury to make healthy choices and not just trying to survive meal to meal.

  11. So interesting! I loved learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy in school, it was relevant in many of my classes. I donate food at Christmas time, but that’s about it. When I’m out of college I hope to help out much more! I took an International Health Issues class during undergrad and I walked out every single day realizing how blessed I am. The way some people have to live is heartbreaking, especially women and children (I’m sure you talked a lot about this during college!)- in some places children are sold as slaves or soldiers and women aren’t allowed to be educated or have a job and must give birth alone on a dirt floor, and the horrors go on and on…it not only makes me realize how blessed I am, but actually makes me feel terrible that I can’t do more to help.

  12. tanyasdaily says:

    I volunteer at the food pantry and am very thankful for the choices I have. Those getting the food don’t get to make the same choices AT THE MOMENT…..and some of the food I’m sure would’nt be there first choice. But when you are hungry you are grateful anything that is given…..and I have learned from them.

  13. i 100% agree that it’s healthy to be thankful for what we have. I am so blessed in so many ways, and it’s great to be reminded of that and humbled! this is a beautiful post katie!

  14. What a fantastic post, Katie! I appreciate you emphasizing the message of taking time to focus on the blessings we have. Not that my situation is ANYTHING like many of those who struggle with having enough to eat on a daily basis, but I can relate in some ways to having to make choices between healthy, good-tating foods and just being able to have enough grocieries for the week, due to financial concerns. I hate having to choose between something I know is good for me and saving an extra dollar that might be needed elsewhere. Part of the problem is that much healthy food – particularly if we want to go as far as organic – is priced out of the ballpark for people who are struggling to make ends meet. And thus the perpetuation of the obesity epidemic among the most vulnerable – the poor.

  15. christina says:

    very interesting post. i love the charts. i’m going to check out that site!

  16. This is a great topic Katie! Sometimes when I think about it I feel so selfish for having food issues when there are people out there who don’t even know when their next meal will be. Even if I don’t have a perfect relationship with food, I am SO greatful that I never have to worry about getting enough.

    Thanks for once again putting things in perspective! :D

  17. Mo says:

    I’m incredibly thankful for my opportunities as both a 21st century child and as someone brought up in a family that, while it has its monetary struggles, is not doing as badly as some other people are. If I ever come into some money, I will not hesitate to give it to those who need it.
    Sometimes I feel spoiled/selfish that some people are starving and I have the luxury to care about where my food comes from, what’s in it and to choose a somewhat more expensive product because it’s of a better quality.

    Great post, and thanks for the charts! I’d never heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs before but it’s very interesting. :)

  18. Sarah says:

    This is a great post. I think as a food blogger I sometimes forget about the little things. I have worked at food pantries and other causes to collect food. It is such a great thing to do.

  19. Shelley says:

    aw what a beautiful post! I ABSOLUTELY take what is available to me for granted- we are truly so lucky to have food readily available & to have health. Thanks for this little reminder!

  20. Great thoughts, Katie. I have volunteered at Project SHARE, our local food bank, and I try to donate food whenever I can. Of all the charitable donations I’ve been given the opportunity to make, t’s my favorite way to give.

    If I could do anything without my budget getting in the way, I’d somehow make sure that everyone, regardless of income level, had the same access to healthy, natural, real food. What a great thought.

  21. It hurts my heart so bad when I think of people that go without food and shelter, especially children. I wish that I could help every single one of them. :(

    Thank you for this post, Katie. It reminded me that there is a local shelter that I wanted to donate some things to. Can I just tell you that I love your blog? I always leave it with something to think about, and because of that it is one of my favorites.

  22. Nell says:

    I have had these same realizations so many times! When I say a prayer before eating, I try to really think about what and why I’m praying. It really is a blessing.

  23. That is such a good point. Such a good, good point. So many times I get down on myself that I struggle so terribly with my weight, and I really need to remember that I’m lucky to even have that opportunity, as weird as that sounds.

    Thanks for that. I needed it. :)

  24. Jennifer says:

    I just learned about that in my psychology class a year ago! It is so interesting and I love how you tied it in with food.

  25. wow, what a great post! gives you so much to think about. one thing i love about living in Australia is that i’ve met people from ALL over the world. (no joke, Hillsong church is probably only 40% Aussies.) it really makes you stop and think that hey – maybe i’m NOT the only person alive. maybe people DO exisist in Kenya, and Thailand, and Sweden. it’s really broaden my perspective.

  26. Katie, I think this is one of your best posts ever. Thank you for reminding me that my food “worries”–calories, fat, carbs, protein, taste etc. etc.–are NOTHING compared to the fears felt by people who live each day not knowing whether they will have access to enough food in order to nourish their bodies adequately. When I think about it this way, I feel selfish for for my indulgent thoughts! It really puts things into perspective!

    In high school I volunteered at a soup kitchen every Monday evening. Connecting and communing with people who had fallen on hard times not only humbled me, but provided an opportunity to form valuable friendships with those I was serving.

  27. Dave says:

    One thing quickly came to mind when thinking about food needs and the various levels of poverty. When people are talking in interviews about their situation growing up, you’ll often hear them say things like “We never had much money, but we always ate well.” Even though they had plenty of food, whether they had many good choices for food or not, we might still say they grew up poor.

    Of course we sadly do have many people in the US who go hungry and really struggle to get any food at all. Still, quotes like that help illustrate the difference between most of the people we consider “poor” in the US versus the poor in much of the rest of the world. I would guess that in many places, nobody would call you poor if you’re able to always eat well (and by that I mean that you have plenty to eat). Access to food in many places is enough to be considered quite well off! We should count ourselves so incredibly fortunate.

  28. Its interesting, my love of food got spurned when I lived to Africa and for the first time DIDNT have access to everything trhat I wanted. Before, I never had to think about food. Here, I realized how much I had taken for granted all the options afforded us in America.

    Here, many people eat only once a day, and those are the lucky ones. Children beg for money all the time, and sometimes a clearly malnourished African child will come up to me, one hand on his distended belly, the other out in a begging gesture, and just say “fome, senhora” (I´m hungry, maam).

    It breaks my heart every single time. Sometimes we give food, but usually we don´t. Begging will never stop if it is rewarded. But it feels pretty heartless having so much food, even if it isnt the food that I WANT or wish I had… I HAVE IT. I don´t go to bed hungry. I am so lucky. But sometimes I wish I didn´t realize how most other people live around me, because I feel so helpless.

    • Katie says:

      I can imagine that living in that environment really opens your eyes on a whole different level.

  29. Sarah says:

    Katie, I have been saving this post for DAYS. It’s truly eye-opening to look at information like this (and a great reminder that life is much bigger than food.)

  30. [...] Hierarchy of Food Needs: a new look for the ‘food’ pyramid [...]

  31. Jess says:

    It’s funny when you take that time to stop to think about your life and realized how others may not be so lucky. I volunteer at the MD Food Bank and will start volunteering for their Community Kitchen. It’s a great way to give back and show your appreciation for all that you have been given in your own life.

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