Nutrition Articles

Dealing with Hunger and Food Cravings

Eat Better and Manage Your Weight without Deprivation

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There's more to healthy eating and weight loss than simply tracking your food. How you think about food and respond to hunger, eating cues, and cravings also affect your diet and overall health.

As babies, we ate intuitively: We fussed when we were hungry and stopped eating when we were full. As we grew older, the world around us began influencing what, when and how much we chose to eat. After years of advertising, imposed meal times, cafeteria offerings, holiday meals, grandma's comfort foods, and yo-yo diets, many of us have completely lost touch with our real hunger and satiety signals. We confuse cravings with hunger and end up overeating—or emotionally eating—as a result.

But hunger and cravings are very different, and by learning to distinguish the two, you can be more satisfied with your meals and reduce your calories without feeling the urge to continue eating. Here's what you need to know to get back to your intuitive eating roots and manage your weight.

Hunger: Your Need for Food
By definition, hunger is "the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food." Simply put, hunger is a signal from your body that it needs food for energy. When you’re truly hungry, your stomach, brain, or both will give you cues to tell you to eat. Signals from your stomach may be growling, an empty, hollow feeling, or hunger pangs. Your brain may send signals such as a headache, trouble concentrating, irritability or fogginess. Some people even experience physical fatigue when they are hungry. Hunger does not go away over time—it only gets worse. And any food will satisfy your hunger and take the hunger signals away.
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About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

Member Comments

  • It was good to read this article again. The first time I read it, the hunger chart helped me to see that I had never really paid attention to my hunger. I ate by the clock. When hunger showed up, I would say "not now, I'm busy" like it was a nagging child, and eventually I did not feel it. I am now trying to be a more "intuitive eater" and pay attention, rather than ignoring my gut. - 12/17/2014 10:53:01 AM
  • This is great advice for most people. If you find that food is controlling your life, and you have uncontrollable urges and compulsions, you may have an eating disorder and will need professional help to recover. - 9/10/2014 1:32:12 PM
  • I make sure I have some of my favorite things so I don't get to the point of uncontrollable cravings. I feel that all foods can have a place in a healthy "diet", just not in vast amounts. I love chocolate and try to have even a very small amount each day. I know once a week I will crave chips so I have a normal portion size and not eat the whole bag. IF we go to a buffet, I can have a little bit of my favorites but not three heaping platters.

    I grew up giving in to cravings and eating everything in sight when I failed and gave in. Learning control and portion control has been something I have been working really hard at and it's working for me. If I think I will never have something again, I will want it more and hate myself when I give in. I don't want to do that anymore! - 5/28/2014 7:05:16 AM
  • MARTHASKI
    I'm definitely printing out that hunger rating chart and using it to track alongside my meals. What a convenient tool. - 5/12/2014 1:58:41 PM
  • I will have to start doing the hunger test - 1/17/2014 11:23:10 AM
  • This was the article that showed up the moment Sparkpeople loaded today, and it fits perfectly with why I logged on at this particular moment!
    I was feeling hungry, something which I have often in the past allowed to overcome rational thought and just shoved something in my mouth to stop the feeling. However, after a recent bout of illness, my stomach seems to have contracted, and I've allowed myself to follow the signals of my stomach even when I haven't even eaten half of the meal I'd planned. I haven't been able to finish more than one or two meals since getting over my illness, which shows me what I already knew but wouldn't recognize: I take more than my body needs, or even wants.
    Today I logged on to leave the comment, "I'm starting to understand that feeling hunger is ok." I have to eat on a certain schedule, as do most busy people, and if I stop eating when my body says I'm done, I will be hungry before the next available time to eat. THAT IS OK! In fact, that is how it's supposed to work. It might take some getting used to, but I like knowing that my body has been jolted into working the way it should. I now need to take advantage and keep listening to and following the cues my body gives me. - 1/10/2014 11:34:59 AM
  • For some of us the issue is medical. I get hypoglycemic if I don't eat enough carbs the day before. While tracking food & keeping calories down, that isn't easy. I do it, and manage to deal with all this, but those days when I get hypoglycemic (usually because I didn't feel like eating that many carbs the previous day) are just horrible because I can't get my blood sugar up no matter what or how much I eat, and if I didn't track what I eat, I'd end up feeling both "10" & "1" at the same. - 11/23/2013 12:30:54 AM
  • PEACENCARROTS
    Liked the Hunger Level Chart. Thanks. - 10/11/2013 11:23:18 AM
  • while this sounds reasonable, everyone's body is different. I am usually not hungry in the morning, but if I don't eat, I will inevitably overeat sometime during the day. Eating a small meal every three hours is the only thing that works for me. - 10/11/2013 10:04:24 AM
  • Don't rule out chemistry when it comes to cravings. It's no surprise that the foods that most people crave and binge on are loaded with sugar and starch (which is really still sugar in disguise - starch is simply a plant's storage form of sugar).

    A natural unprocessed food diet has a very low level of sugar/starch, and even that usually comes packaged with lots of fiber or protein, which mitigates your body's response to it.

    Eating sugar causes an immediate release of insulin, and sets you up for a roller coaster of blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar is simply another form of hunger - that's the one that touches off the headaches and fogginess.

    Smoothing out the roller coaster will go a long way to easing your cravings, and you do that at the source - by lowering the amount of sugar and starch you ingest at any given meal or snack. - 10/11/2013 8:17:55 AM
  • I'll definitely start tracking my hunger scale! - 9/17/2013 1:40:45 PM
  • I love this Article. I also agree with most of what THINSTEAD said about your body craving particular nutrients- but I think that it's an across-the-board thing. Sure, you crave sweets when certain emotions strike, you can also crave crunchy or salty when others come about. But when taking emotions out of the game, cravings say the same thing- "This might help." - 9/13/2013 11:26:13 AM
  • The 1-10 chart is actually helping me! Love it! - 3/14/2013 10:26:49 PM
  • To crave spinach or carrots is one thing. That's your body signaling it would like some more of a particular nutrient. But if you crave cookies, chocolate, chips or pasta at some point each day, then that's emotional eating behavior. The only way to stop emotional eating behavior is to deal with the underlying emotions that are generating it. I found energy psycholgy was the best way for me. I took a look at what need comfort foods were serving, and what role food took in my life growing up and used EFT to relase the emotions that were causing the problem. I'm down 55 lbs and I no longer have daily cravings. I actually find myself getting hunger pangs sometimes now and having to stop what I'm doing to eat. It feels great to stop obsessing over food. I'm so much happier now. But I can totally relate to what it feels like to crave particular foods. - 12/23/2012 12:27:46 PM
  • PAMPEEKEMD
    Keeping meals and snacks on a regular schedule is essential because it trains our bodies and minds in the art of hunger. It also means that, knowing what is needed at 3 p.m. or for the next morning's breakfast, we can be prepared and not think as much about all the other options.

    When we're hungry outside of our schedule, we need first to distract ourselves, then remind ourselves that no one ever died of hunger between scheduled meals, and then to consider why.

    I was first senior research fellow in NIH Office of Complementary Medicine. Using food addiction as template, THE HUNGER FIX addiction plan integrates personal empowerment, spirituality, along with whole food nutrition and restorative physical activity. - 12/23/2012 9:59:41 AM

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