You’ve probably heard before that our bodies can confuse hunger with thirst but is this true? In this blog post we will go over the difference between thirst and hunger as well as give you tips on how to differentiate between them!
Before we dive into how to differentiate thirst from hunger let’s first discuss them both separately.
Signs Of Thirst
Water accounts for about one half to two-thirds of our body’s weight! Staying hydrated is one of the most important things we can do to keep our bodies functioning well and allow us to feel good, too.
We are consistently losing and obtaining water throughout the day, this is called water balance. Our bodies are striving to balance this intake and loss to keep us healthy. Many mechanisms exist to keep this balance, one of those being thirst.
Thirst can be described as a sensation that initiates and signals us that we need some water or fluids. When we need water, nerve centers are stimulated in the brain, which produces the thirst sensation.
Research has shown that the sensation gets stronger when our need for water increases. Some common signs of thirst are a dry mouth or throat, feeling sluggish, headaches, and more. On the more severe end, when we don’t get enough water, we might experience dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration are light-headedness, confusion, loss of concentration.
I talk more about dehydration in my blog post on dry fasting (it's a new health trend that is NOT healthy!)
Signs Of Hunger
Hunger can be defined as a craving or urgent need for food. Many things regulate appetite, but hormones play a huge role in hunger. Ghrelin prompts food anticipation and motivation for food, then signals your brain that it is time to eat, which makes us receive those physical feelings of hunger.
Physical feelings of hunger can range from person to person. Some of these feelings can be your stomach feeling empty, your stomach is growling, headache, mood changes, and more. You can read more about hunger cues here.
Can You Mistake Hunger For Thirst?
It IS possible to mistake hunger and thirst. Sometimes, feelings of dehydration (headache, fatigue, etc.) can be mistaken for feelings of hunger. However, I have found that the more I practice intuitive eating (no longer dieting) I am more able to tell the difference between the two. It takes practice!
However, the idea that you can mistake the two could potentially be harmful and think people take it too far and use it as a way to suppress appetite. If you are unable to truly listen to your body, such as what can happen with consistent dieting, you may actually inadequately nourish your body which can lead to overeating later.
So, How Can You Tell The Difference?
Like I said, some of the signs of hunger and thirst can be similar, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. It might help to consider the following:
- When did I last drink anything? Has it been a while?
- When did I last eat? Has it been a while?
It can be fun to think of it as an experiment, which is how I address learning intuitive eating in The SociEATy. Try doing this: If you think you might be hungry but haven’t had anything to drink, sure, try having some water first. Then, ask yourself if you’re feeling satisfied. If yes, then maybe you were just thirsty. If not, then now you know what hunger VS thirst feels like!
Ask the same question when it comes to hunger: has it been a while since you've had food? If so, you're probably hungry! Now that isn't to say you can't be hungry soon after eating- it totally happens! It's just an initial question to ask yourself.
The more you practice this experiment, the better you will be able to distinguish between the two clearly.
How To Strengthen Thirst Cues
Strengthening thirst cues can take some practice and even mindfulness. You can try practicing the experiment above to get yourself started and even check out my blog post on my top 10 mindful eating exercises and use THOSE for thirst too!
One study compared hydration states of those who followed a schedule of drinking and those who hydrated only when feeling thirsty. The result showed that there was no significant difference in hydration status. In a resting state, it is adequate to trust our thirst sensation enough to hydrate us. I.E. No. need to guzzle gallon on gallons daily!
However, some factors should be taken into consideration. For example, during exercise our thirst sensation is slightly less sensitive. When you’rer exercising, try to take some water breaks, and make an effort to drink after your movement to compensate for the sweat loss.
Additionally, research has shown that both children and the elderly experience reduced thirst sensation. Another study showed that our response to thirst is not as sensitive during psychological stress.
Generally, the main consensus is that most healthy people adequately meet their hydration needs, sometimes excluding athletes, those in hot and dry environments, the elderly, and children.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to consistently offer yourself water throughout the day, in fact I think it’s a great idea! However, you don’t need to force yourself to chug gallon and gallons!
How Much Water Do I Need?
Water needs vary from person to person depending on factors like sex, age, environmental conditions, physical activity, diet, and just day to day conditions. Because of these ever-changing conditions and factors, there is no RDA (recommended daily allowance) established for water. Recommendations vary, but generally speaking, about 13 cups per day for men and 9 cups per day for women is recommended to prevent dehydration.
Now this recommendation is of water you DRINK. Our bodies also get about 20% of our water needs through food sources. Yes, food DOES contain water!
How Can I Increase My Water Intake?
In my personal experience when I got myself to a state of hydration through consistently offering myself water my thirst cues strengthen. So, increasing water intake may help to strengthen your thirst cues like it did for me.
The following are some tips to make drinking water fun and enjoyable, all the while strengthening and understanding your thirst cues:
- Add some flavor! Try adding some fresh strawberries, kiwi, blueberry, cucumber, lemon, etc to your glass of water
- Keep a water bottle wherever you go. This makes it easy to take sips
- Find a cute water bottle that you love to look at and use
- Be aware of going long periods without offering yourself water and try sipping some water each time a new hour begins
- Experiment with the water temperatures. One study showed that cold water alleviated thirst quicker than room temperature water
- Try journaling about your thoughts and experiences. When do you notice that you’re thirsty? What satisfies that thirst? How did you feel when you were hydrated VS not? This can help with intrinsic motivation!
What Counts As Water?
Now you've probably heard that things like coffee or soda don't contribute to hydration but that's not entirely true. Coffee and soda DO contribute to our fluid needs however they aren't the same as water.
Caffeinated beverages can have a diuretic effect but it's not likely that they negate the fluid intake. They may not hydrate your body as efficiently as other sources. This is something that now as an intuitive eater I can FEEL. If I go all day without drinking actual water (well, I like to add flavor because I hate plain water!) I FEEL like crap! Even if I've been sipping on coffee or soda all day.
Water truly is the best bet for hydration. I find that a good middle ground if I'm looking for a little fizzy flavor I'll opt for a sparkling water like La Croix (or Aldi brand is FAB!) which also does contribute to your fluid intake.
Can You Drink TOO Much Water?
It is possible, but not super likely! Staying hydrated is very important. However, there can be too much of a good thing. Overhydration occurs when you consume too much water and can’t get rid of it at the same rate. Symptoms of overhydration can vary.
On the severe end, symptoms can be lethargy, fatigue, disorientation, confusion, nausea, coma, and more. Interestingly enough, some of these symptoms are also similar to dehydration. Overhydration can also throw off our electrolyte balance.
A Final Note On Thirst VS Hunger Cues
While yes you COULD mistake the two it's important to not ignore one or the other. Don't ignore your hunger and drink a ton of water. You'll fill your stomach sure but not satisfy yourself (i.e. keep searching for something to hit the spot!). And on the other side, don't ignore thirst.
I truly think the best way to truly know the difference is to learn to listen to your body and become an intuitive eater. It takes practice but you can get there, I'm so confident!
If you want to learn more about how to listen to your body take this quiz to first find out what your dieting weakness is and get customized resources based on your answers for how to overcome dieting for good and listen to your bod!
What is YOUR favorite way to hydrate your body? Let me know in the comments and share ideas with us!
This blog post was researched with the help of Erin Roy, RD2B