Is it hunger? Or is that pang a need for something else?

Confused Woman Looking In Open Refrigerator

Sometimes we think we are hungry or that we need to eat something to fill what feels like a gaping hole. But recently I learned, by paying really close attention to what I thought was a demanding hunger pang, that the craving, yearning feeling wasn’t hunger at all.

I have been living the low-carb keto lifestyle for more than four years, and by now I like to think that I have it pretty much all figured out.

How I eat on most days is super simple. Breakfast is either some type of eggs or no breakfast at all and just cup of coffee with a dash of cream. Lunch might be leftovers from the night before, or a cold plate with deli meats, cheeses and veggie crudités. Dinner is simple too, either a quick Diet Doctor recipe (yum, Brussels sprouts with pork belly!) or just a grilled piece of steak, pork, fish or chicken and lots of above-ground veggies.

This type of fare, day after day, now generally keeps me satisfied and rarely craving anything more at all. I am rarely hungry between meals and if I am, I just grab a piece of cheese or a hard-boiled egg or a handful of almonds and eat a bit more protein at the next meal.

I adore the fact that most of the time I no longer feel enslaved to food. This new normal is amazing after more than 45 years of regularly feeling so hangry between meals that I thought I might collapse if I didn’t eat right that minute. It was always as if a demon, in the gaping maw of my stomach, was snapping his bull whip, yelling: “Feed me this instant.” (And usually not something healthy but potato chips, French fries, donuts, or popcorn!)

So, it was a great surprise the other day, late on a Friday afternoon, when seemingly out of nowhere the demon craving returned. He was stomping in my stomach, throwing a ruckus, demanding something to meet his urgent need.

Why had he returned? What had happened to my usual keto steadiness and equilibrium? Why were my feelings of easy self-control and satisfaction being up-ended?

Had I unknowingly eaten some hidden carbs?

I have learned over the last few years that if I do indulge in sugary or starchy carbs — like at a friend’s dinner party or a get-together where it would be rude or awkward for me to decline the host’s labored offerings — the next 24 to 32 hours will be marked by very strong cravings for more carbs.

I think it must be an evolutionary adaptation that ensured that if ever, as a Northern hemisphere hunter-gatherer, we stumbled upon a source of quick carb energy, like a honey tree or a bush full of berries, we would gorge on it until it was gone. Now I know, after a Saturday night of carbs at a friend’s dinner party, the following Sunday will be hard, full of yearning for other carby foods. If, however, I anticipate this predictable reaction and have no carbs in the house, and avoid stores and shops to buy more carbs, by Monday morning I will be feeling okay and back on track.

But this sudden craving had blind-sided me. I had eaten no hidden carbs for days! In fact, I had eaten a good keto breakfast and keto lunch of leftovers. The hole in my stomach felt like hunger, but how could I be hungry? I was very well fed.

I wanted and needed something. What was it? I scoured the cupboards in my office kitchen; all they held were dozens of varieties of teas and a package of smoked oysters. The demon did not want oysters.

The small office fridge was no better: a hardened heel of cheese, some mayo and horseradish condiments, and a package of butter. Would the demon be satisfied with a naked spoonful of butter? Nope.

Somehow, as if I had not made a conscious decision, I found myself walking in the direction of a popular big-box pharmacy in my region called London Drugs. It is one of those stores where you can buy absolutely anything and everything — garden tools and patio furniture in the center seasonal aisle; a top-line camera or the latest computer equipment over in electronics; pajamas, suitcases, and socks in the dry-goods aisles; motor oil, jumper cables, and duct tape in the car/hardware aisle; and of course any type of pop, candy, potato chips, flavored popcorn, nachos, cookies, biscuits, chocolate bars, and other fast foods in the three aisles devoted to highly-processed hyper-palatable fare. (All while you wait for your diabetes medication to be filled from the large pharmacy.)

I told myself I was just going to get new gardening gloves, but I knew if I walked through those London Drugs doors, feeling this way, it would be almost impossible to escape the siren call of cheezies or cheddar popcorn, my demon’s favorite short-term fix.

What was going on? The five-block walk gave me ample time to reflect. I focused in on my gut, trying to pinpoint the place where this feeling was radiating from. Pay attention, listen to it.

I breathed deeply. Noticed the sensation. It felt like a hole, a void. But wait a minute, it was higher than my stomach. It was coming from my chest. A vague feeling of emptiness. It was being interpreted by my brain as some need that must be fulfilled. Ahh, that word, I had never noticed that before: full, filled.

It was an unfilled need that felt like hunger, so my brain had been telling me to eat something to fill it up.

What was I really yearning for?

I reviewed my day, my week. What was happening in my life that suddenly, out of nowhere late on a Friday afternoon, would cause this feeling to build and grow and feel so demanding that I would risk mindlessly cheating on carbs?

And then I knew, it was three things actually:

  • My 25-year-old daughter was traveling in England and I hadn’t heard from her for a week. Every day I had hoped to hear from her, but I knew she was busy with a packed schedule and an awkward time zone. I knew that she had been having some special meetings that might subtly or blatantly direct the course of her life (meeting university professors, and meeting her British boyfriend’s parents for the first time). I wanted to hear from her but as the day went on, I knew it was now past midnight in London so it was unlikely I would hear this day either. I had a need for connection and reassurance from her that was out of my control to meet.
  • My 28-year old daughter, living 3,000 miles away in Toronto, was having her final interview for a good job she really wanted, one that also might set her on a new course in life. But now it was past 6 pm there. Would she hear today? I wanted so much for her to get the job, to hear that it was hers. It was another need for connection and reassurance, to know all was right in her world, that was also completely out of my control to meet.
  • And finally, for more than a month, I had been working on Diet Doctor’s new page for medical professionals who recommend the low-carb, ketogenic diet. I had promised the Diet Doctor team that by Monday we would have testimonials from more than 100 doctors. It was an arbitrary goal I had set, but it mattered to me because I felt the work was important to spread the awareness and acceptance of low-carb eating. Here I was about seven doctors short of my goal, with some 40 more doctors all saying they would be honored to take part and would have their statements and photos as soon as they could. Would seven arrive in time for Monday morning? I had a need to achieve this goal, but it was completely out of my control to meet.

These, in the scheme of things, were minor life stressors. So small on their own that I was not even consciously aware that together they had made a trifecta that felt like hunger, but was not. It was a need for control, connection and communication. It was an unrecognized anxiety over the uncertain future of my kids who, even though they’ve been grown and gone for years, still daily occupy my mind. It was my perfectionist type-A work personality who had some self-imposed need to complete her work assignments by a Friday afternoon. Minor stuff, over all, but the craving was real.

The revelation hit me about 100 steps from the store door. I laughed. Was it that simple this time? This could derail me? Yup, if I wasn’t conscious, fully present about it, it could. I thought back to past cravings and times when I got derailed, but at the time could not figure out why. During those times I just thought I lacked willpower and commitment. I couldn’t muscle through.

Had something other than hunger driven those lapses? Up until now I had never paid close attention to the nagging discomfort or the need that felt like hunger but was actually a feeling of something else: worry, sadness, anxiety, fear, disappointment, anticipation, lack of control, wanting something badly but having no power to make that outcome occur.

I walked into the store with confidence. Yes, I still had those nagging unmet needs, but I knew it wouldn’t be filled by eating something carby. I got the gardening gloves (and light bulbs, sport socks and printer paper, because that is what happens at London Drugs)! But I walked past the cheezies and the white cheddar popcorn without a pang.

And what about those unmet needs? Of course, eventually I heard from them all. Madeline had a fabulous time in England; Kate got the job; and the page of medical doctors recommending low carb is growing now well past 600 physicians, an inspiring read from doctors all around the globe.

And now best of all, I will be more attuned in the future about how some unrecognized emotional needs, even small ones, can create body sensations that feel like a void that demands filling. Next time I will zero in on that feeling and be more likely to ask: is it hunger, or is it something else?


Controlling hunger – part 1

Reflections on humans held captive in a carbohydrate culture

When you’re fueled by fat, traveling is a relative breeze

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