Chatting with a neighbor about his weight struggles, I asked, “What’s really the problem? Why do you think you can’t lose weight?” He burst out with gruff frustration: “If I would just stop eating so damn much…” My heart sank; I could see his guilt and shame. This makes the fourth year in a row he’s tried to reclaim his health. My next question to him was important. It’s the question I ask all my clients, the question one might want to write down and post to the fridge.

What are you eating?

With all that extra weight, is it possible to be malnourished? Food provides vitamins and minerals that our bodies use to function and thrive. Certain foods can add to our bodies’ health. Other foods can actually take away health. Think of food as medicine. The potassium in a banana can help with muscle cramping. Vitamin A in carrots helps with muscle repair. Processed foods like white flour, high fructose corn syrup, white sugar and foods with preservatives introduce un-naturals that cause our bodies undue stress and strain.

The things we eat that our bodies don’t recognize as valuable often get set aside in fat cells to be dealt with at a later date. The fat cells build up with toxin and unused sugars, making us fatter and feeling awful. If all our bodies receive are a lot of unhealthy foods with little to no nutrients, they become malnourished and overweight.

Perpetual eating is a sign, but just not the sign of poor willpower.

Fighting your own instincts is asking for failure. Feelings of hunger are a way the body sends a message for nourishment.  We get messages for nutrients via cravings, hunger pains and thirst. And if the signal of hunger is sent and a quick bagel is the answer, well… that just falls flat with regards to nutrients. When hunger calls out again and gets a slice of pizza, a doughnut and a Diet Coke to quiet the call, then best believe that once it’s done dealing with all those unidentifiables, an immediate S.O.S. will go out in the form of hunger again.

Our bodies don’t like being ignored. Starvation diets don’t work for exactly this reason. Dr. Mickey Barber, CMO of Cenegenics Carolinas, says, “When the body is put into starvation mode, it stores fat and slows the metabolism, which will inhibit weight loss.” Unless there’s exercise involved, the body will use muscle and bone before using up its fat stores.

Cravings decoded

Sugar cravings are cries for energy. Great foods for sweet fuel are carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, squash, whole grains (i.e., quinoa, amaranth, brown rice), and then the obvious: sweet fruits and berries.

Salt can be a cry for minerals. Minerals are baked into in a wide spectrum of veggies and dark leafy greens, meat, legumes, grains, nuts and seafood. Taking a whole-food organic multivitamin can help.

Fats are key for brain function. There are healthy fats in things like fatty fish (i.e., salmon), nuts, seeds, avocado and olives.

Water is used for every function. Every cell needs water to process itself. The feeling of dehydration sometimes manifests in hunger pains, dry eyes, dry/pale lips, dry mouth/skin and headaches.

Hunger can be a useful tool in understanding what our bodies need. Feeding the body proper vitamins and minerals, and being mindful of what we eat, will lessen that strong desire to shove just anything in. Mindfulness and nourishment are two of the most powerful steps to no longer being overweight and malnourished.

When hunger comes, consider it a blessing to receive. Hunger is healthy; no need to fight your own instincts. Just change the relationship—part of a loving relationship is to really listen, which takes practice. A good mindful practice is to feel the hunger, decide if the craving is for sweet, salt, or fat, or actually a thirst. Once you recognize your craving, healthy choices are easier.

Next time there’s a hankering for a double-pump, extra whipped cream anything, recognizing what’s happening in your body gives you the chance to make a better choice.

Tara Hitner is a Certified Health Coach (CHC), and the founder of Holistic Healthy Heart. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @hitner_holistic.