Today I continue my exploration into healthier eating and, in particular, ways of avoiding overeating and unhealthy eating. Last week I wrote that any diet that leads to a chronic sense of hunger is bound to fail. After all, how can it not if, to succeed, a person must remain in a nearly constant state of discomfort and perturbation? I then mentioned that some types of hunger, for some duration at least, can actually feel good. Today I expand on the point of differentiating different types of hunger from each other as well as from emotional states that, although not hunger, can be confused with hunger and lead to eating in the absence of true hunger.

Weekly Photo

I am partial to graffiti art and street murals, and chose photos of such art – that I’ve taken in many of the cities I’ve visited – as the theme for the weekly Friday LifeBriefs. There is no other reason for this choice. I hope you enjoy them too, and are welcome to submit your own for inclusion.

Today’s photo is by the street artist called Jasso and is part of a large mural about 30 feet across. It is located in the La Villita neighborhood of Chicago.

Healthier eating has as its foundation mindful eating. Mindful eating can be thought of as maintaining a sense of awareness to the cues that trigger eating and the cessation of eating, as well as to the sensations of the food consumed (its sights, smells, textures, and tastes) and the eating process itself (the chewing, moving food in the mouth, swallowing, sipping, gulping, etc). In other words, the foundation of mindful eating is simply paying attention and, through the heightened awareness achieved, learning to discriminate different sensations, emotions, and other mental states. This awareness and discernment can then lead to a great appreciation of the food consumed and better eating choices. As a side benefit, mindful eating can lead a person to realize they often move through their daily hours in a zombie-like state of semi-awareness and help them achieve greater awareness, appreciation, and acceptance in other spheres of life too.

As mentioned, to become a more mindful eater it is crucial to be a better discriminator of the different sensations, emotions, and other mental states associated with eating. Types of hunger comprise only a subset of this wider set of reasons to eat. Not everything – or even most – of what triggers eating is hunger. Here is my taxonomy:

Hypoglycemic Hunger

I refer to this type of hunger as hypoglycemic because its features are due to falling glucose levels. This type of hunger is characterized by irritability, preoccupied attention, hunger, wooziness, trembling, nausea, headache, and racing heart.

This type of hunger is extremely aversive and triggers motivated behaviors to get some food into one’s stomach asap. Because of the sense of emotional urgency this type of hunger triggers, it makes it difficult to maintain mindful eating: the imperative is to eat something – anything – right now! The individual will eat anything conveniently at hand. Worse, in this type of state the urge to eat fast carbs is high. After all, that’s what the body needs at the moment: a food that will quickly raise the serum glucose level.

There are two solutions to managing this type of hunger. The preferred approach is to eat in such a way as to avoid such hypoglycemic states. The approach is eminently simple (if not always easy): don’t eat fast carbs. Avoid sodas, fruit juices, and anything made from processed flours, whether it’s wheat, rye, corn, or rice flour. Carbohydrates are not our enemy, but fast carbs, that is, carbs with a high glycemic index, are.

A healthy diet will include a combination of slow-to-digest carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats, that is, fats relatively low in saturated fats. Sources of slow-to-digest carbs include vegetables, old-fashioned oatmeal, legumes, and whole grains.

A second management approach to hypoglycemic hunger is to keep some healthy food options available in the event you do have an attack of this type of hunger; after all, rarely are we perfect eaters. Recognize when hypoglycemic hunger coming on because it’s better to respond to this hunger earlier rather than later. Eat your healthy option that you keep at hand in your office or purse. Nuts are a good option. I knew one doctor I worked with who used to eat a can of sardines – I know because I could always smell them – as a way of avoiding his mid-afternoon irritable hunger. My (perhaps odd) option is to pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil into tomato juice. I like the taste and am taking in about 200 calories (that I account for in my daily allowance) from slow-to-digest, low-glycemic-index healthy fat.

Good Appetite Hunger

When an individual eats a diet low in fast carbs, they minimize the hypoglycemic transition from the body’s use of stored glucose to the use of fats for energy. Especially when a person engages in intermittent fasting, it is important to eat a diet low in fast carbs; it makes easier to succeed in maintaining these fasts while avoiding states of irritable hunger.

One common approach to intermittent fasting is to eat only during an eight hour window each day. When I’ve tried this for days on end, I find it is easy to stay away from food during my fast. During the non-fast times I even enjoy the heightened sense of alertness I achieve when eating a high fat, moderate protein, and low carb diet.

During the time of fasting, I absolutely experience hunger pangs. Sometimes the growling in my stomach is so loud it’s embarrassing. Despite this, I feel great: alert, mentally focused for extended periods, and physically energized. I actually look forward to these states. With this type of hunger, a person does not need to fight hunger; rather they can enjoy it – to a point, of course.

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Craving for a certain type of taste or particular food or drink needs to be distinguished from hunger. Craving is defined as a strong desire for someone or something. It is not an emotion but a drive, manifested by increasingly strong urges that often lead to the behavior that achieves the goal, in our case, the eating or drinking of the craved for food.

Cravings are strongly associated with specific situations, places, or times. For example, in my life I’ve had strong cravings for cookies and milk, especially chocolate milk, right around 11pm. If I’m tired and go to bed before 11pm, I don’t experience that craving. If I’m up past 11pm, I begin to experience an increasingly strong craving the longer I stay up. I’ve for the most part broken this association now, but with much effort and temporary unhappiness. If you suffer from uncontrolled food cravings, start by identify the specific circumstances that have become associated with the urge. Then, you can start to change the triggers or your responses to them. (More on this in future post.)

Emotional Eating

Another type of unhealthy eating pattern is to eat in response to a particular emotional state. Common emotional states that trigger a search for self-soothing include boredom, loneliness, distress, anxiety, sadness, and even anger. The reason the phenomenon of emotional eating is so common is because it works: eating, or binging, a particular food during a time in which a person experiences an aversive emotional state often does cause a release of tension, a sense of relaxation and well-being.

Of course, this relief is often extremely short-lived because many affected individuals immediately engage in self-blaming and self-denigrating cognitions. And, even for those “unenlightened” few who don’t beat themselves up over emotional eating, they will sooner or later develop physical consequences associated with unhealthy eating and possibly obesity.

That’s it for today. Tell me of your healthy eating struggles and successes, and I’ll share them with the thousands of readers of this blog.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“Whatever your problem is, the answer is not in your fridge.”

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
– Hippocrates