Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Autumn can be a time for self-reflection.  A time to cosy up and think about where we are in life.  But, do you ever include your health in your reflections?

If you are not familiar with Maslow’s work, this pyramid is based on the premise that without the items lower down (the foundations), we cannot achieve the items higher up.  The pyramid shape also suggests more things need to be in place to achieve the items at the bottom, than the top.

Physiological Needs

At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs.  These are our basic needs, the things we need for survival.  For example, shelter, clothing and water.  There is also food, rest and overall health.  In other words, this level is about our standard of living, quality of life and lifestyle.

To achieve overall health we need each of the items listed – we need to be warm enough, hydrated and to have the energy from sufficient food, and rest.  But, this is just at a basic level.  In order to thrive and have good health we need to look at the quality of the food we eat, and the rest we have.  If we don’t take time to rest, we don’t give our bodies time to recover from the daily stresses which can contribute to chronic stress and inflammation.  In turn, this is likely to contribute to illness.

Food gives us energy and nutrients.  We need calories to have the energy to function and this is where much of our society’s focus lies: get energy from food, and control the amount of energy we eat to avoid or management our weight.  But, in order to function well physically and mentally we need the right vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.   The best way to get these is by eating a variety of healthful foods (see later).   If we are not functioning well, we are less likely to attain the higher levels of the hierarchy.


Safety includes our emotional wellbeing.  While there are many factors that can affect this, nutrition is one.  Modern “western” diets, including a dependency on ultra-processed foods, are repeatedly shown in scientific studies to negatively affect mental health.  Why?  Because they tend to lack nutrients such as folate, magnesium, omega-3 DHA and EPA fatty acids, selenium and B vitamins.

Gut health is also important here.   You may be familiar with the phrase ‘gut-brain axis’.  This is the phrase used for the interplay between the two parts of the body.  You may have noticed this through “butterflies in your stomach”, changed appetite or nausea when you are feeling nervous or stressed.  These examples show how what is happening in the brain is affecting the gut, but the affects can also happen in reverse.

Inflammation in the gut and the variety of bacteria in the gut microbiome have been scientifically linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  This can be an issue for children as well as adults as our microbiome starts to form at birth.  In some cases pregnant mothers taking antibiotics within a couple of weeks of their child’s birth may affect their neonate’s microbiome, as well as their own.  However, I am not suggesting you should not take antibiotics if they are recommended by your medical team, they are recommended for a reason and can be life-saving.  Instead it may be appropriate for probiotics to be administered to the mother and/or child to help support their microbiome – speak to your medical team or other appropriately qualified professional if you have any concerns or questions around this.

Love and Belonging

Nutrition may not be a direct influence on our relationships, but our eating habits can be.  Do you sit at your desk to eat lunch while working, or do you take a break and go to socialise?  May be at home you all eat separately, watch TV or look at phones instead of focusing on your food and interacting.  Taking a break can support your digestion and help you manage your appetite as you focus more on your food.  Social eating can also support your mental wellbeing (Dunbar, 2017).

In addition, if you eat well and feel well you are more likely to feel up to socialising – especially if food and drink are involved in the social event!  If your gut health makes you feel uncomfortable at social events, why not have a chat with me to see if nutritional therapy could help you?

Esteem Needs

As mentioned above, good nutrition can help to support your emotional wellbeing, which in turn can support your levels of confidence and self-esteem.  The gut and microbiome help emotional wellbeing through their role in the regulation and production of hormones and neurotransmitters.  Of course, eating a healthful diet will help this as you feed the microbiome and provide your body with the nutrients it needs for all these functions to work.

Looking at nutrients, we need to consume “healthy fats” and a range of protein sources for our gut, body and brains to make hormones and neurotransmitters.  And, vitamins and minerals (particularly the B vitamins) help us to use the fats and proteins.  Note: if you are vegetarian or vegan it is important to eat a good variety of plant proteins each day to ensure you are getting a good range of the essential amino acids (the protein building blocks that we can’t make ourselves) – animal sources tend to contain all of the essential amino acids.


Self-actualisation is about having a sense of fulfilment.  From a health perspective, this could include ‘feeling at your best’ physically and mentally.  Without wanting to repeat too much of the above, if you have the right nutrition it will help you to achieve what you desire in life as your body and brain will have what they need to function well.

Mindful eating may also be an influence here.  The awareness of what you are eating.  When you eat focus on your food – what it looks like, its texture, its smell and its taste.  Take time to notice and appreciate what you have.  If you decide any of these features of the food isn’t adding to your enjoyment, think how you could improve it (healthfully!).  For example, how colourful is your meal?  Eating a variety of colourful vegetables not only looks attractive, but it can also increase the nutritional benefits of the food.

The Food Pyramid

Public Health England frustratingly continue to promote the unhelpful Eatwell Plate (I’ll not get in to the politics here).  It is a thing that fills me with dread when my son is learning about keeping healthy at school – how do I tell him that some of what he is being told is not necessarily correct without undermining his teachers?!

An alternative model is the food pyramid.  While there are different versions available online they offer broadly the same information.  Some variations reflect sustainability goals, or ethical or cultural preferences.  In general, the bottom is fruit and vegetables, and the top is foods considered to be “unhealthy”.  The idea of the pyramid is that the diet contains mostly the items at the bottom and fewer of the items at the top.  I like the model below because it includes daily recommended servings to make it more relatable.  It was produced by the Department of Health, Republic of Ireland in 2016.

Food Pyramid

Of course, this is a generalised dietary model and does not take into account specific dietary needs such as allergies, intolerances or diets specific to other health needs.

While this isn’t perfect, the food pyramid promotes whole foods rather than heavily processed foods.  The idea is that by following this guidance you will get a good range of nutrients from your food to help you obtain the recommended daily nutrient intakes.  To help you do this it is important to eat variety within each group across each week.

You may have noticed that the bottom of the image also highlights the importance of fluids (ideally water) and active lifestyles.  Both of these are important for health and digestion:

  • Sufficient fluid intake can help keep stools soft and prevent constipation
  • Exercise helps us to manage our sugar levels (go for a short walk after your meals to get the most from this benefit); it may support the balance in our gut microbiome; and it can help keep the digestive system moving
  • Hydration and exercise can influence our mood.

Why not try applying the food pyramid to your diet to help you achieve each of the steps in the Hierarchy of Life?

References/Further Reading