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Head Hunger

blog habits head hunger hunger scale triggers Aug 31, 2021

Head Hunger: Triggers, Habits and Connections

We all have triggers, habits and emotional connections with food. When we are "hungry" but not really physically hungry, it is know as head hunger.

Here is  your roadmap to this blog:



Emotional Connections


Disassembling a Trigger

Disassembling a Habit

Autobiography in Five Chapters by Portia Nelson

Disassembling a Connection


With triggers it could be something as "innocent" as walking past the bakery, catching a whiff of freshly baked bread and wanting to have it whether we are hungry or not.

A trigger could be more "sinister" such as always wanting to eat after an argument with someone.


Habits can be also be along the same spectrum from "innocent" such as always having popcorn at the movies or wanting to avoid a dreaded activity and you have the habit of eating so that it sidetracks you.

Remember, habits are not always consciously motivated.

  • Sometimes they are controlled by our "lizard brain" meaning that we put absolutely no conscious thought into our actions at all.
  • We just do something and either don't realize we are doing it, or wonder why, afterwards, why we did.
  • You are almost mystified why you ate something. 

Changing the habit but still responding to the trigger

You might be in the habit of always stopping in for fast food along a certain route. Is it a habit or is seeing the golden arches a trigger?  You might still be responsive to the trigger of seeing the golden arches so you pull in, but can order a diet soda or coffee instead of a whole meal. So you have sort of broken the "usual" habit while still responding to the trigger.

Emotional Connections

What about emotional connections to food?

Simple emotional connection to a specific food

  • This can be what happens with a comfort food.
  • It is enjoyable to eat and it might make you happy as it brings back fond memories of some person or some event.
  • It also might not be your best food choice in the moment.

Deeper emotional connections to food

  • These are entwined with triggers and habits.
  • This is when you turn to food when you are anxious, bored, angry, unhappy, frustrated, depressed, etc.
  • The circumstance itself might be a trigger or using food as avoidance and soothing might be your habit.
  • Needing to eat for this avoidance or soothing is called head hunger.

The connection might even be deeper

  • Perhaps you grew up with abuse or no friends, for instance.
  • Food became your only source of comfort, love or entertainment.
  • Food might have been your only friend.
  • Food might have been the only source of love and caring from a parent.
  • Food could have represented significant happiness in your life, such as having attention and being loved at your birthday parties, or enjoying friends and family at holidays.
  • This is where your triggers and habits might have found fertile soil.
  • This is also head hunger, but when it is deeper like this, we also call it heart hunger.

So anything can be on this spectrum, from the innocent "smell bread, want bread" trigger to the not so innocent "food is the only thing I can count on."

I am not here to dissect what is going on with that.

But, it is important to know that once you have made these associations for years, you forge neural pathways in your brain. I stress with my clients over and over again, they are not broken. In fact, everything is working brilliantly. (Please see the bonus guide "The Brilliance of Chocolate Cake" to learn more of about this. There is a link to it at the end of this blog.)


  • Over and over again people beat themselves up for self-sabotage.
  • That is another whole ball of wax.
  • But you can pick apart that ball of wax.
  • You can slowly acknowledge and disassemble triggers just as you can acknowledge and disassemble habits.
  • Make very small changes.

Disassembling a trigger


  • If every time you finish a meeting with your boss (which usually doesn't go well) you head straight for the vending machine.
  • Do this instead:
    • Find a quiet place to close your eyes and breathe slowly for 2 or 3 minutes (even if you have to head straight to the ladies room to do it).
    • THEN go to the vending machine if you still feel you must.
    • Then eat half of whatever treat you bought.
    • Breathe another 2 or 3 minutes.
    • Don't stew and rehash the meeting.
    • Just listen to your breath.
  • Your brain cannot do two things at once.
    • Just listen to your breath and count.
    • Then if you must, eat the other half of your treat.
  • Over time you might have the same trigger but your response to it will change.

Do this tiny-step method whenever you realize you are reaching for food in response to something that has happened to you and not because you are hungry.

My example of disassembling a trigger

  • I found that when I went into a grocery store that has the bakery right at the front, my brain was totally scrambled.
    • More OFTEN than not. I would get something from the bakery no matter how "good" I was being.
    • Worse, I would resist that but then binge later - often not even knowing why I was bingeing.
    • Self-sabotage at its best.
  • I eventually went in a different entrance.
    • As a matter of fact, if I remember correctly, I came in through the exit even if it meant that I had to wait for someone to leave the store so that the automatic doors would open.
  • Now I no longer go in to that store.
    • If I need something on special that only that store has I send my husband or pay a few more cents somewhere else.
  • My only way through this head hunger was to find my way out of it by not exposing myself to the trigger that caused it.

Disassembling a habit

Disassembling a habit works much the same way. Let's go back to the golden arches example.

  • You can absolutely change your foods order to something better for you than what you usually get.
  • You can even drive by and tell yourself "not today" but - and I speak wholly from personal experience here - that tends to come out sideways.
  • That means that you might binge later (not even knowing why) or order more the next time you stop because, after all, you were "good" the other day.
  • How you disassemble this habit is to go down a different street. "Out of sight, out of mind" is really true.

My example of disassembling a habit

A  habit that I recently disassembled is nighttime eating.

  • I am not a person who fasts easily, but I was willing to try a 12:12 fast just to break my habit of nighttime eating.
    • 12:12 stands for fasting 12 hours followed by a 12-hour eating "window."
    • This does not mean I eat for 12 hours but if I take my last bite at 7PM, then I don't have anything to eat until 7AM the next day.
  • Baby steps, my friend. I don't go near the kitchen after dinner.
  • I make 2-3 tall drinks with crushed ice, putting two of them in thermoses so that I have no reason to go into the kitchen for anything. 
  • My battle against that evening head hunger was not easy, but I have succeeded.

Autobiography in Five Chapters by Portia Nelson

I think this might be the single most important thing that you will ever read that will help you see my point about how to disassemble triggers and habits.


I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk I fall in.

I am lost... I am hopeless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.

I can't believe I'm in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall's a habit

My eyes are open; I know where I am; It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

Disassembling a connection 

Disassembling a connection may be a little harder than disassembling triggers and habits.

  • Your first step is awareness, which is really the hardest part.
  • When you say to someone "I don't want to talk about it" then BINGO.
  • That's exactly what you need to face and talk about.
  • Sometimes you might need professional help to unearth the connections because you aren't even aware they are there.
  • You might need help to find out why you have the connections. 

Sometimes journaling will do that for you but then you might need professional help to face the core issues and to help you dig at, and expose those roots. (Please visit my blog on Emotional Eaters, where you will see reference to therapy.)

Just as with triggers and habits, connections can be on a spectrum as well. Some issues may require professional help, but sometimes it is just a "lightbulb moment."

An example might be:

  • "Oh, I never realized that when I am craving ice cream it always happens when I'm anxious.
  • Next time I am craving ice cream I will see if I really want it."

I know that is an oversimplification, but not everything is deep and dark and shrouded in sadness and abuse.

Sometimes it is just that a certain food might soothe you and once you are aware of it you can work to break that connection.


Please make sure you also read my blog on the mechanics of physical hunger where I address physical hunger and using a hunger scale.

There is a bonus guide with that blog and I put it here again (below). 

You cannot learn to deal with head hunger until you are very sure what your cues are for physical hunger.  

Learn more about this with my book and course:

Book Breaking Free From Diet Prison: Common Sense Keto and Low Carb 

Course Breaking Free From Diet Prison: The Roadmap to Low Carb and Keto Success

Be sure to download these FREE bonus guides:

The Brilliance of Chocolate Cake

 The Hunger Scale


Tips for Keeping a Food Journal - Part 1

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