The “Phantom” Hunger Phenomenon

Kellie Weinhold, RD

This insightful post is from Kellie Weinhold, RD, LD, clinical dietitian who lives and works in Ohio.

As a dietitian, most people assume I’m naturally thin, I don’t have to worry about my weight, and eating right just happens naturally. My patients often tell me that I cannot possibly fathom how hard it is to lose weight.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Like many Americans, I have a strong family history of obesity, so I have to work hard every day to not gain an ounce.

As a dietitian, I spend my days talking, listening, reading, thinking or writing about food. I’m constantly listening to everyone’s  food issues and giving my suggestions for healthier options and alternatives to the oh-so-tempting, yet not-so-good-for-us options.

This all-day attention to food makes us think we’re hungry and craving food—even when we know we’re not hungry at all. This “phantom hunger phenomenon” is also common among chefs, food and nutrition journalists and anyone else working with or around food. It may even happen to you when you’re reading your favorite cooking magazine or watching the Food Network.

Here are my strategies to get the “head hunger,” well, out of my head….

Get Up

When it’s an option, get up and move will get your mind off food. I’ll go climb a few flights of stairs to take a sip from the drinking fountain on another floor, or I find an excuse to go to the other end of the building. This not only clears the hunger clutter in my head, but allows me to focus on my work better too.

Drink H2O

Sometimes when we think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty. When we’re not in tune with our bodies, it can be pretty easy to mistake the need for water with the desire for food. If I think that my body might just be dehydrated, I will fill up my 16-oz water bottle and take a few minutes to drink that before actually turning to the food.  Filling my stomach with fluid usually takes away that feeling of hunger and I am able to continue what I was doing before the “head hunger” hit.


Turning to a different task and shifting my focus can usually help me to forget that I thought I was hungry. This can be as simple as making a few phone calls, responding to some e-mails, or even organizing my desk for a moment.  Getting the mind to reboot and refocus on something else will help you forget your phantom cravings.

Eat Something Healthy

If you have tried to shake yourself from that nagging feeling of hunger and it still hasn’t gone away, then perhaps you really are hungry!  Take some time to break away from the work in front of you and devote 15-20 minutes to eat something healthy, and stay focused on eating rather than doing five other things at the same time. Multitasking and eating leads to overeating.

Keep healthy snacks on hand that you can turn to for some quick energy that doesn’t add unnecessary calories, fat, sodium and sugar.  Some of my favorites are plain yogurt with berries and granola, raw vegetables with hummus, a light cheese stick and a can of Low Sodium V-8, and apple slices with natural peanut butter.

Kellie and Hubby Biking in Ohio


  1. says

    I appreciate the sense of “head hunger”. My clients ofter refer to that same phenomena. I don’t think it is phantom at all. I have come to think of it as the nascent experience of insulin resistance, probably coupled with some activity from gut and neuro-peptides (not all of this is adequately articulated at the moment)

    People are born relatively insulin resistant or relatively insulin sensitive. Those of us with diabetes in our family history are very likely to live with relatively greater insulin resistance that the average person. This can mean that we are far that we are more impacted by the carbohydrates we eat. While blood sugars, HgbA1C and other glucose parameters remain normal, the insulin secretion from a dose of carbohydrate is greater and distorted compared to people with greater insulin sensitivity.

    The result of this insulin response is a blunting of lipolysis and a greater reliance on carbohydrate for fuel, as well as impaired glucose uptake, glycogen synthase activity and other insulin mediated functions. When using glucose preferentially for fuel 24/7, one is bound to feel hungry more frequently, and more intensely.

    Turning your attention away from food can help when there are glycogen stores to pull from, but may be penny wise and pound foolish. When hepatic glycogen stores are depleted, the need to eat can be all consuming. That often happens during the “witching hours” of 3-5pm. My clients talk of “losing it”–feels just like bonking or hitting the wall. In this state It is almost impossible to not overeat and all too often food choices are less than ideal. I’d rather help clients restore greater insulin sensitivity as well as avoid getting over hungry or glycogen depleted in the first place.

    Over time the visceral experience is a greater preoccupation with food, especially carbohydrates. The more carbohydrate they eat, the more they want. Cutting back can feel like withdrawal. Once someone is better balanced it is not so difficult to manage. When someone is out of control, the experience can feel overwhelming. Dietitians can be of great support, but first we have to acknowledge the phenomena for what it is.

    Often even after eating a balanced adequate meal, an IR person can still feel like they “need something”, but they know they are not hungry. That is what I call “head hunger”. Robert Lustig, MD of UCSF refers to a CNS insulin resistance–I often wonder if that is a more apt description of what they are experiencing.

    About 2/3 of the population is considered insulin resistant for good reason. My guess is that IR is a metabolic profile that allows man to survive scarcity (many people around the globe still need this resource). At one conference for molecular biologists I heard one speaker quip that the people who don’t readily gain fat weight are the ones with the genetic mutation. They would have never survived thousands of years ago.

    In Kelli’s blog, I notice most of the healthy snacks listed above include protein. Eating enough protein or combining protein with modest carbohydrate is exactly what I find helps quiet the experience of “head hunger”. The sooner dietitians address this phenomena as real, the more likely colleagues and/or patients will feel empowered to more successfully navigate their food environment–even if they work in it all day long.

  2. says

    Great suggestions Kellie – what part of Ohio are you in? (Cleveland here)

    People with obesity often have a blunted thirst response, and live with a chronic state of mild dehydration. As a result, they don’t feel thirsty, but they may get yawny, brain fogged or tired and feel like eating something. A clue is if “water makes you thirsty”. That usually signals that a person’s thirst response has kicked in and the appropriate feeling is now occurring for thirst.

    @Madeleine – Immediate hunger after eating could be a blood sugar spike, in which case, less carb, more protein… or it could signify food sensitivities – keep track of when it occurs. Food sensitivities can set up an immediate inflammatory, cortisol, increased insulin resistance response – which leads to hunger. In obesity, the most common food sensitivities are wheat gluten, dairy, corn and soy – easy to keep track of what set it off by just marking down what you ate that meal.

    Good luck!

  3. says

    Great post! I agree that we often confuse various states with hunger. These are excellent suggestions. It can also be really helpful (for a variety of reasons) to connect with others who are on the same path to address their cravings or lose weight. The power of the group can be impressive when it comes to food cravings.

  4. says

    Great post. It seems like I’m never really all that hungry until I start eating. Once I start I have a hard time stopping. I think this is because when I am eating I am actually relaxing. I think my mind associates the food with actually getting to sit down and not think for a bit. To avoid overeating I have to get up and do something – even if that something is just going to bed!
    I found you on Stop by and see me at when you get a chance.

Leave a Reply