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Hungry or Thirsty?

My oldest daughter, Halle, inspires this week’s blog. Out of my three children, Halle is my very best eater. She is the epitome of health, a dietitian’s dream when it comes to her food palette. She is most comfortable on a small 6 meal per day schedule. She always seems like she’s always hungry. She loves almost all food items, and it is very rare to find something that she doesn’t like. She even maintains a very normal weight. In fact, she is only at the 25th percentile for her weight. Her one complaint? She is plagued with mild headaches almost on a daily basis. I’ve even had to send Tylenol to school with her to use when one sets in. Being a dietitian, my first suspicion was her diet. What was she doing or not doing on a regular basis that could be contributing to these headaches? What I came up with might surprise you. Her one nutrition shortcoming? It wasn’t until I started monitoring how much she actually drinks in a day, that I realized some of her “hunger” might actually be thirst. It got me thinking…. I wonder if most of us, know the difference between these two sensations? It’s really a fine line. Knowing and recognizing the difference can play a big part in whether we are successful with our daily diets, and feeling our best!

For most of us, there’s always that time of day when you think; “I’m hungry, it’s time I look for something to eat.” Without even really thinking about it, we open the fridge to scour for ready-to-eat foods at home or race to the nearest vending machine to buy pre-packaged snacks when we’re at the office. But the next time you get the same hunger signal again, it’s better to pause and ask yourself first. Are you really hungry or could you just be thirsty? Although individual differences exist, the list below can provide some common hunger symptoms:

-Feeling of emptiness in stomach
-Gurgling, rumbling or growling in stomach
-Dizziness, faintness or light-headedness
-Irritability, easily agitated
-Lack of concentration

The truth is, most people confuse thirst and hunger, often mistaking the former for the latter. Clinical studies have shown that 37% of people mistake hunger for thirst because the thirst mechanism is so weak. Adding to this for chronic kidney disease patients is that sometimes we are placed on fluid restrictions to reduce the workload of the kidneys. Always follow these restrictions, but also make sure that your body is getting enough fluid, as well. Signs of thirst symptoms may include:

– Constipation
– Thirst
– Dry skin
– A sluggish feeling
– Dry-eyes
– Headache
– Nausea
– Dizziness
– Increased heart rate

Pay close attention to these feelings and what you have taken in during the day. Misdiagnosing these symptoms can easily lead the body to think that it needs food when what it’s really asking for is water. Moreover, the fact that the symptoms of dehydration (i.e. feeling weak and dizzy) mimic those of hunger contribute to people’s confusion between the two signals.

Not a lot of people know that you don’t necessarily have to wait until you’re thirsty to grab a drink. Generally, the thirst mechanism kicks in when you’re around 1 to 2 percent dehydrated, which is measured by body weight change due to sweat loss. Real dehydration occurs by the time at least 2 percent of your body weight is reduced, causing you to suffer side effects like headaches and nausea sooner. Make sure you are reaching your daily fluid allowance, while monitoring your fluid intake all day long to avoid this.

Apart from avoiding those unhealthy symptoms, having enough water in your daily diet fills you up, helping you avoid overeating. For chronic kidney patients, it is important to ensure you are staying within your protein, phosphorus, sodium and potassium guidelines. When you lack consumption of water, your body is quicker to experience dehydration. Aside from water assisting in the flushing out of toxins in the body, it also eases digestion and blood circulation. Drinking enough water will help ensure that you are not mistaking thirst for hunger, which can also help keep weight in check.

Listen to what your body signals you to do. Do not be tempted to reach for whatever snack is in sight at the first sign of “hunger”. Your best bet to identify whether that feeling is hunger or thirst is to drink water, within your fluid allowance, upon the first time you’re brain tells you that you’re hungry. Wait 15 minutes before you decide. If you were truly hungry, that feeling of wanting to eat something won’t leave while if you were actually thirsty, then you’ll feel satisfied.

The moment you establish that you are, in fact, hungry, do stay away from foods that are detrimental to your kidney diet. Opt for fiber-rich snacks, which are low in fat and high in antioxidants. Apples are excellent, an easily available source. Berries, red and purple-skinned grapes, which coincidentally contain resveratrol, a compound known to facilitate caloric restriction, are also some of the high-fiber foods you can guiltlessly munch on, while fitting in to your kidney diet.

With my daughter, who is not on a fluid restriction, I’ve encouraged her to do the same things. According to her good health, age and weight, she needs about 7 ½ cups of fluid per day. Making her her own health advocate, she has become much more aware of her fluid needs, and is eagerly starting to incorporate more fluids throughout the day including: water, low-calorie sports drinks, and fruit-packed smoothies. Not surprisingly, her daily headaches have also subsided. As always, the best in health to you and yours!

Information or materials posted on this blog are intended for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, medical opinion, diagnosis or treatment. Any information posted on this blog is not a substitute for patient specific medical information or dietary advice. Please consult with your healthcare team or dietitian for a more complete dietary plan and recommendations.


  1. Judy Johnson says:

    I had headaches a lot when I was younger. They really did not stop until I quit drinking milk when I was in my 40’s. My pastor had mentioned that he had been tested and said that milk was one thing that gave him headaches. I had never heard that before so I decided to try it. I was amazed that my headaches stopped. Just thought I would pass this on. Could have been a fluke but it worked!

  2. Janet says:

    I have a friend with PKD. He struggles with hunger and energy when he’s been in meetings at work all morning that frequently run into his normal lunch time. He usually eats cereal for breakfast. For someone who does not have PKD, I would probably make the suggestion that they have some kind of protein for breakfast, like an egg rather than cereal, or grab a handful of almonds for a snack since protein is a good source of energy. Other than his kidneys, he is in very good health and still feels good; however, he’s very close to Stage 5 and was told a transplant is likely within the coming year. What food would be a good source of energy to help him get through the morning?

  3. Jill says:

    HI Kelly,
    Have you heard of Kangen water? I have had several people mention it and I had never heard of it. They say it tastes really good, what do you think?

  4. Kelly says:

    Judy- very interesting! Wonder if you had/have a slight intolerance to dairy? Either way.., so glad you figured it out! Best of health to you! Kelly

  5. Kelly says:

    Hi Janet! Very good question. The best nutrition components shown to last long and prolong energy are protein and far. You were right to think about advising him to work in a protein source at breakfast. Since, I egg is equivalent to only 1 oz. of meat… My suggestion would be to take 1 oz. of protein away from his daily total and use this at breakfast. A great addition would be 1/2 an avocado, or toast with a little butter. This way… He would still be staying in his protein allowance for the day, just spreading it out, which is healthier anyways. Plus, do not underestimate the power of a little fat in the diet. Adding just enough will help sustain energy levels throughout the morning. Hope this helps! My best to you and yours!

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