What Do I REALLY Need?

By Katie, 5:21 am

If you’ve ever gone on a restricted diet, you know the feeling you get when your body screams at you, “NO MORE DRY LETTUCE!” – when all you can think about is how to get your hands on as many of these as you possibly can.


In that particular situation, the urge to overeat is coming from a place of actually needing to eat; you aren’t getting mixed signals or anything.

But in most instances – at least when you’re not dieting - the urge to overeat isn’t coming from a place of desperately needing food. It’s coming from a place of desperately needing something else.

I have had great success with the simple process of feeling the urge to go for the pint of ice cream, stopping myself in my tracks, and pondering, “What do I REALLY need right now?”

The answers have been wildly varied: 

  • a hug
  • a nap
  • a trashy romance novel
  • a venting session with my journal
  • a mini temper tantrum, often involving some pillow-punching
  • some time away from any and all technology
  • sweatpants
  • a good, hard cry

Now just because I take the time to figure out what I really need doesn’t mean I always get it. There are plenty of times when I need a hug but I’m alone, or I need a nap but I’m at work.  In those cases I just accept that the situation isn’t ideal, and plan for a future time to give myself what I really need.

I don’t – or at least I try really hard not to – settle for an alternative. Because the simple truth is this: when what I really need is a hug, even the best chocolate chip cookie won’t do. When I really need to shed some tears on a supportive shoulder, a spoon and a jar of peanut butter are rather poor substitutes.

Food will never hug me back. It will never hold me and assure me that everything will be ok. In most cases, it just isn’t what I really need. The urge to eat subsides when I truly recognize that.

Have you ever turned to food when you actually needed something else? Have you ever asked yourself the simple question: What do I REALLY need right now?

46 Responses to “What Do I REALLY Need?”

  1. I think I’m more one to restrict food if I need something – I tend to overeat if I’m bored! But i think it’s a very good idea to really look at WHY we need something – eating is so emotional!

  2. I’ve turned to food more times than I care to admit to substitute for the things I really need. Until recently I never asked myself what was driving me to eat, but now I analyze what I’m doing and try to give myself the real thing I need.

  3. Lauren says:

    Wow, who has not turned to food when they needed something else? I think this is why so many people have such an unhealthy relationship with food today.

  4. Tina says:

    I know I’ve been there and it really does help to recognize what you are trying to use food to cover up. It’s hard sometimes but knowing you can get what you really need (at least eventually) and that it will satisfy much more does help.

    I love the “food doesnt hug you back” remark. I totally pictured a giant cookie giving someone a hug. LOL

  5. It’s strange, it’s only when i stopped dieting that i felt that overeating was me crying out for something else. It’s simple when you are dieting and you overeat you can easily convince yourself it’s because “oh i need more food and ive been depriving myself”

    When I’m not dieting and I find myself rummaging through the cabinets when I’m not hungry, i can now take it as a sign that i’m hungry for something else whether it is . . . .

    A nap
    Someone to talk to
    A brief walk
    A connection to nature (ie: stepping outside for a minute and gazing around)

    Most of the time I just need to sit down and close my my eyes and let my thoughts race and slow down. I find that without a clear head it’s hard to figure out what i really want. By the end of a few min or longer, It becomes more clear what REALLY need and 90% of the time . . . It turns out that it’s not food!

  6. welcome to my binge eating!!!!

    I usually ‘need’ food when I really need: to get school work done, need to exercise, sleep or water OR a good cry.

    • Kate D says:

      I used to think I deserved to have a treat right before doing homework because it would help me study better. It was pretty hard to study when my stomach was aching.

  7. yeah, i’ve ask myself that before. usually i need time alone to regroup and gather my composure.
    the mind/body connection is so strong and i usually hear my body screaming and reacting through nerves, shallow breathing, tight muscles, upset tummy,etc.
    but, what i need is for my body to shut up so i can figure out what i really need :)

  8. Holly says:

    Wow, I never thought to ask myself that question before! Usually I concentrate on what I’m feeling (anxiety, sadness, boredom, loneliness) and that kind of overwhelms me. I can identify my feeling, usually, but I love focusing on what I NEED. I’m going to try this next time I’m drawn to cookies and cake to ease my pain. :-)

  9. I certainly have! A nap or some rest for me is a big one. Sometimes I think I’ll get this huge burst of energy by having a snack, when really I just need to lie down and close my eyes for 15 minutes.
    And sweatpants, I love that one :-)

  10. Hayley says:

    This is so absolutely true – every time I get the urge to eat and I know I’m not hungry I try and remind myself that what I need has nothing to do with food. If we aren’t physically hungry and we’re trying to satisfy a need with food then we’re never going to get enough (at least this is how I feel) and it’s why I keep eating and eating and eating…because there’s some other “hole” that needs to be filled and I’m using food to fulfill that need – but since food is NOT what I need I never get enough. Does that make sense?

    Now if I could just get myself to pause/stop long enough to at least try and figure out what it is I truly need…you’re right – sometimes it’s hard to figure out, but perhaps at least being aware that food isn’t what you’re truly craving maybe emotional eating/bingeing is avoidable?

    I love these posts!! Thank you! :)

    • Katie says:

      Hayley, I love what you’ve added here. You’re so right that that is often why we keep eating and eating and eating. It’s never enough because it’s never what we needed in the first place. Great comment!

  11. Jessica says:

    This certainly describes me! I am at least now able to slow down enough to acknowledge that I need somethiing other than food. It doesn’t always work – sometimes the cookies still win. That is okay though – I am all about the baby steps, they are less overwhelming!

  12. Hope says:

    I would love to be able to slow down when I’m stressed or tired and ask myself what I really need. I’m still working on that! Sometimes it’s so hard to stop yourself in the moment!

  13. Candice says:

    Absolutely. My biggest struggle with weight loss is eating for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Food is so complicated because it’s for survival, but it’s also social. Finding the balance is hard. I still allow myself to eat out of boredom sometimes, but for stress and other emotions, I’ve really stopped turning to food. Oddly enough, my food blog helps me control it.

  14. Perfectly put as always, Katie. For me it’s a bit more than identifying what I need – it’s also about giving myself the permission to need it. The other night I caught myself heading to the fridge for a third piece of chocolate and realized that I was extremely upset over something that I thought I’d already let go of…but I was more upset that I was still hurting from it than the fact that it had thrown me in the first place. Once I realized that it was okay to address the emotions and feel how I felt, I was able to put away the food.

  15. I usually turn to food if I find that I’m bored. I think I try to substitute food for loneliness, as though chomping my way through things I’m not hungry for is going to keep me occupied for a bit. I’m still working on stopping those impulses (some days are more successful than others).

  16. oh, i’ve totally done that! i feel like when that happens is when i’m bored or too tired…so rather than DOING something or going to sleep i eat. the great thing is that i recognize that now, but the hard part is taking action on it!

  17. Wow, Katie, I love this post! You’re always so eloquent. I’ve definitely turned to food when I really needed all the things that you listed, but I’m not sure that I fully understood that I was looking to food to be my all-in-one source of comfort.

    The good thing is that recognizing this is the first step in healing emotional eating. Plus, like you mentioned, you can do your best to give yourself the true nourishment you really need (whether that’s a nap, a good cry or a talk with a friend), if possible.

  18. There are definitely times where I seek food when I really “need” something else. That’s where journaling has really come in handy! 9 times out of 10, there’s an underlying need that I wouldn’t have even been aware of if I didn’t start writing down how I was feeling. My typical need is simply talking to someone else!

  19. Leanne says:

    I absolutely love this post of yours! I recently finished “women, food & god”….. & also another book by Geneen Roth called “Feeding the hungry heart” and they both completely cover this topic. The most important thing you can do to your body is be KIND to it. Change is never going to come from a place of hatred. You have to love yourself and take care of yourself to facilitate change. I’m learning to trust myself and trust that my body/heart/mind knows what it needs and if I just listen and treat it with respect, life gets simpler, more manageable, and happier.

    Thank you for this blog post :)

  20. lisasfoods says:

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot. When I’m craving certain foods, what is the meaning behind the craving? If I crave ice cream, is it because I want something rich and creamy and cold, or am I just thirsty for ice water? (Sometimes it is just for ice cream.)

    I read a book called Integrative Nutrition this summer, and the author talks about understanding how to follow your body’s needs and cravings. It’s really interesting, and I recommend looking for it.

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for the book recommendation – I’m definitely going to check it out. :)

    • Martha says:

      I too read Integrative Nutrition by Joshua Rosenthal and found it to be very powerful. In fact, I am now enrolled in his year long nutrition program to become a health/nutrition coach.

  21. Yum Yucky says:

    I vote for the trashy romance novel. I’ve yet to read one of those. And if I suddenly lose 10 pounds because of it, I’m totally gonna suggest you take this genius blog post on the road.
    Oh, and I already did that temper tantrum thing this morning. It made me NOT hungry until 9:45am.

  22. Kristy says:

    This is my first visit to your blog, it’s great!! I ask myself that question everyday! When I’m craving something..why do I want? Am I really hungry for food or for something elso… Great post!!!

  23. I turn to food for comfort a lot and I want to learn to look to other things to fill those needs in that moment.

  24. Kate D says:

    Overeating was never about what I really needed–I never wanted to take the time to really figure out what I wanted. I usually had these overwhelming feelings (anger, anxiety, frustration, fear) and instead of solving what was causing these problems or at least treating myself better, I would eat hoping it would all go away.

    Lately I’ve noticed that if I want to eat when I’m not hungry, I can usually stop myself and figure out why I want to eat.

    Baby steps.

  25. Sarah says:

    Completely true! I try to use the HALT method before I eat (if I’m questioning my hunger). Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Plus it helps since you HALT before you eat and try to figure out if you are going to eat because you are hungry or another reason.

    Though I can’t say I’ve always been successful at stopping myself but I try to focus on one day at a time!

  26. Jennifer says:

    You blow me away with all of your amazing writing! Sometimes I feel like you are writing out my exact feelings and it is so comforting to come to your site and get encouragement and advice. With that said, I loved how you compared a hug to a cookie. You’re right, a cookie can never compare.

  27. Kristine says:

    This happens to me all the time. The hard part is figuring out what you really need and how to get it. It’s so true, what you said about food never really being able to meet your emotional needs (hugging you, reassuring you,etc.). In the moment it seems like it will make you feel better, but it usually just makes you feel worse.

  28. Sarah says:

    That question has changed my life.
    Still, I go back to my old friend food. Usually when I’m feeling useless or helpless. What I really need then is a long walk with a friend, some perspective, and a tight hug.

  29. Oh, Katie, we think so alike! I wrote a recent post about trying to figure out what I’m really hungry for when I reach for ice cream (it’s usually ice cream for me…) I notice that it’s often companionship and connection that I’m in need of and that spending time with my husband or calling a friend does wonders.

  30. amanda says:

    Ummmm….I could just answer this question by DUH ALL THE TIME! :) I have always turned to food before for so many reasons. A few reasons are because food never judges me, it comforts me, it can also make me angry when I feel the need to eat everything in my line of sight. I know when I was really into restricive eating and then a massive binge ( a cycle I am currently breaking) I would turn to food because my body would need it. However, since I labeled foods as “good” and “bad” my body acted like it would never eat again and led into these massive binge. I also have been working on finding out what my body really needs instead of eating those cookies, ice creams, peanut butter, etc. Sometimes…I really do just want that item.

  31. Josie says:

    i love this, Katie (as i so often do). and, have i EVER turned to food for comfort and support, all the while knowing what i really want is one (or a combination of) those desires you listed! it constantly amazes me for slowing down for five minutes can make the most drastic impact on my day.

  32. [...] with me. Katie from Health for the Whole Self – one of my favorite blogs! – wrote about emotional eating, saying that sometimes the urge to eat (when we aren’t hungry) may come “from a place [...]

  33. your post came with perfect timing because even though i knew i was tired and should have just taken a nap, i was taking steps towards the kitchen for some cereal/snacks…such a great subject to talk about. this is one area that i have problems with and a lot of times it’s actually because i’m thirsty! living in a desert will do that to you!

  34. Martha says:

    What a thoughtful inspiring post. Any one who has ever eaten for emotional reasons can relate to what you are expressing. Many of us eat to escape, distract ourselves, calm a mood, quell anxiety, etc. Asking what we really want is such a powerful question. I know for me, I often just need to take a few deep breaths, have a glass of water, or take a walk. You are so right, when you are needing a hug, no amount of food can takes its place.

  35. [...] blogging soul mate wrote an awesome post called What Do I Really Need that digs into some of the things you may really be in need of when the urge to eat when not [...]

  36. [...] when I “relapse” and find myself turning to food instead of asking myself what I really need, I am still so much wiser and more in tune than the person who ate and ate and ate and had no idea [...]

  37. [...] REALLY hungry for? Obviously I am no stranger to that question; I’ve written before about how asking myself what I really need is one of my most effective strategies for fending off the urge to overeat emotionally. But in [...]

  38. [...] Of course, the process doesn’t end here; distinguishing emotional and physical hunger is only the first step. And yet it’s an essential one. Because once I know for sure whether the urge is physical or emotional, I’m a whole lot better at satisfying it effectively, either by eating or by figuring out what I really need. [...]

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