Re-Thinking Our Basic Needs

By Katie, 5:24 am

What are the basic needs of the human race? Food, water, clothing, and shelter, right? Isn’t that what they taught us in elementary school?


When I went to hear Evelyn Tribole speak about her ground-breaking book Intuitive Eating, she mentioned that it’s really difficult to have a stable relationship with food if our basic needs aren’t being met. Of course, I thought, thinking that it would be impossible not to be obsessed with food if, say, I couldn’t count on getting a balanced dinner every day.

But it turns out that’s not all Evelyn Tribole meant.

As she spoke, she put up a slide up on the screen with a list of “Basic Needs.” It read:

  • Self-Care
  • Sleep
  • Transition Time
  • Friendships
  • Boundaries

A bit surprising, huh?

Unfortunately she was running out of time and couldn’t explain her thought process behind each need she listed, but it definitely got me thinking about what it is that each of us needs and deserves simply because we’re human. It’s more than food, water, shelter, and clothing, I think. I would add these to her list.

  • Safety, both physical and emotional
  • Compassion and acceptance
  • Intimacy and closeness with other humans
  • A connection to something greater than ourselves

As long as these things are missing from our lives, we will be discontent and uncomfortable. We will be on the hunt, searching for something to satisfy our hunger for fulfillment and our thirst for peace. And often we will turn to food, unconsciously hoping that because it quenches one human need it will take care of them all. But it doesn’t work that way.

If you’re struggling with emotional eating, as I so often have, it’s definitely worthwhile to make a list of your basic needs – going beyond the ones in the 3rd grade textbooks – to see if any of them aren’t being fully met. The key to making peace with food may very well have more to do with something like sleep or boundaries or intimacy than it does with actual food.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “basic needs?” Do you think there’s more to it than the standard food, water, shelter, and clothing?

25 Responses to “Re-Thinking Our Basic Needs”

  1. Becca says:

    I studied Economics for a while at school, and this made me think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs –

    They used it as an illustration for why certain macroeconomic structures such as Communism so often turn out to be ineffective in real life. I love how each layer is directly linkable to the next – you start life at the bottom of the pyramid, but in order to retain each of those layers, you kind of need to work from the top of the pyramid downwards.

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for bringing this up! I had heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy, but hadn’t thought of it while writing this post. Interesting connection!

  2. When I hear needs, my thinking is in line with Evelyn’s. I think of self care as making sure those fundamental needs are being met, like setting boundaries and making sure we are emotionally healthy. So many people struggle to understand how not setting boundaries impacts their overall health. But, when we think more deeply about it, and bring some awareness to our behaviors when these needs aren’t being met it becomes crystal clear how it all impacts our relationship with food.

  3. kell says:

    very thought provoking! you definitely got my wheels turning this morning and i would like to add on that self-love must be a basic need. without it, it seems we wouldn’t have the drive to seek out things like food, water, shelter, or companionship. taking care of ourselves takes alot of effort and if we dont love ourselves its hard to feel like all the effort is worth it.

  4. Definitely am having an emotional eating problem this morning. I think what I need is fulfillment in my life. I mean a feeling that I am contributing to something and that I am fulfilled intellectually at the same time. I don’t have that and it creates so much boredom and problems with self-worth for me. I also need more self-love. I think there is only so far self-love could take me, but there is also only so far outside fulfillment can take me too…I need both to be happy and take care of myself. GREAT POST!

    • Katie says:

      Great comment, too! I agree that the combination of self-love and external fulfillment is extremely important.

  5. Bubu says:

    Very insightful post, thank you. I also think sometimes parents, especially in certain cultures, push or offer food as a comfort, or to cheer up their kids, or some other sort of substitute for true emotional need (like compassion or acceptance). This sends a very confused and, I think, bad message, and can screw up an adult’s relationship to food as well. I certainly think this kind of thing affected my relationship with food, and not in a good way. I try hard with my own kids to offer hugs and a listening ear instead of a cookie when they are upset – so hopefully they won’t end up with the same distorted notions of what food is for!

    • Katie says:

      That’s great that you do that!!! Many, many children grow up associating food with comfort in the way you describe, and I agree that it’s a part of the reason so many of us struggle as adults.

  6. Katie, I love the idea of making a list of your basic needs! It’s an excellent way to start taking better care of yourself – and to have a better understanding of what that really means to you. Once you figure that out, you can work toward it.

    I never even considered self-care, compassion and acceptance as basic ends. In all honesty, I didn’t even give myself the basic need of nourishment years ago.

    Thanks for this! :)

  7. Meg says:

    I definitely think human interaction and feeling of companionship/support are a huge basic human need. I also thought your mentioning of safety was very insightful!

  8. I, too, thought of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs! And I second self-love as being a basic need!

  9. Interesting… My basic needs (as explained in your post) are most definitely not being met, and wouldn’t you know…my past issues with food are creeping back up on me again.

    It happens like clockwork. So simple, yet so complicated at the same time.

    You’re always spot on with your insight, Katie :)

  10. True passion would be on my list.

    Without passion for something (relationships, work, hobby ect.) , You cant truly be “living” . . .

  11. Lisa says:

    My basic needs:
    Whole foods

  12. Lisa says:

    David may remember a song we used to sing from a children’s music album by Raffi.
    “All I really need is a song in my heart, food in my belly, and love in my family…. And I need some clean water for drinking. And I need some clean air for breathing. So I can grow up big and strong, to take the place where I belong…” Nice that Raffi included joy, love and relationships as he sang to children about basic needs.

  13. marzipan says:

    I love this understanding of “needs.” I know that in my own life, it’s so much more important for me to have set good boundaries, take time for myself, and sleep enough than it is to do almost anything else. Without doing these things, I am essentially useless because I become so needy and nervous all the time. Thanks for the reminder ;)

  14. At first when I think of basic needs, I think of food and water and such, but if you ponder the thought, I hear ya. I say knowing that you are loved is a pretty important one. Everyone wants to feel loved. It’s a natural human desire.


  15. I love this concept. It is one of the underlying principles the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where I have been studying for the past year, but their they refer to these needs as “primary food.” It’s the stuff that sustains us and is critical to a happy, healthy life. I love that in a nutrition program, food is secondary to these fundamental needs.

  16. Alexis says:

    Those are the basic bodily needs to sustain life. Anything else is what makes life emotionally bearable. Negative emotions do degenerate the body through hormonal responses, but when that list was originally made we weren’t aware of that. For that reason, the list of basic needs does need to be expanded.

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