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

  • This article is so helpful - love the hunger chart and would like to try it. - 2/5/2016 1:24:35 PM
  • SKIRUNNER1
    This is one of the best articles I've ever seen on this! - 2/4/2016 3:40:21 PM
  • I know when I am feeling tired and draggy I will want to eat and mostly crave carbs. I try o have healthy options like small wheat crackers on hand and even if I eat more than I should, it isn't too big a hit on my calorie count. I LOVE dark chocolate and regularly allow myself small portions - no more than 12-18 grams usually of my favourite brand and always track it. - 2/1/2016 11:06:06 AM
  • Good article. I have read also that it is important to slow down by chewing each mouthful a little longer. Signals of fullness take a little while to reach the brain. If you eat quickly, you may have already overeaten before your brain tells you you're full. - 1/30/2016 7:44:26 AM
  • I did not know there was a Nutrition Notes section of the Nutrition Tracker -- I must explore that right now!
    I am not sure she's absolutely correct -- I think it would take a lot of celery to satisfy hunger; maybe any food in the right quantity can satisfy hunger -- not sure about this one. Am sure that I feel comfortably full after a healthy breakfast and a delicious lunch, yet I am hungry: my tummy is sending out empty-tummy messages -- maybe because I just did 30 min of cardio -- I could be thirsty, but that's not the signal that I'm receiving. Thirdly, when we have a craving, making a substitution is not going to work; when I crave chocolate, I eat chocolate, enjoy the moment, and put it in my tracker. Gonna check out that Nutrition Notes section. 8-) - 1/28/2016 5:41:35 PM
  • I wish SP could allow for a level-of-hunger rating on the nutrition tracker page -- it would really be helpful. - 1/20/2016 11:49:47 AM
  • Nice article and I, too, liked the hunger chart. My cravings are greatest in the mid afternoon, which is my low point of the day. If I plan a healthy snack for that time, I do pretty good at taming my cravings. No plan? Then I look for a sweet treat, usually the vending machine, with candy. Then I feel guilty as I know better. It's a vicious cycle.

    So, I need a plan, and need to follow through on my plan! Buy the healthy snacks, take them to work each day, and eat them instead of the junk. Sounds so simple when I write it out! - 1/17/2016 10:25:32 AM
  • Woubbie is so right!
    For years I would read articles like this, and think something was wrong with me, I simply could not control my cravings. I would eat a nice well portioned, well balance meal and 2 hours later I would be hungry, really hungry. NOT emotional, NOT boredom, NOT peer pressure. It is chemical, I finally went low carbohydrate, gave up wheat, and I am off the blood sugar rollercoaster. I don't wake up in the middle of the night hungry anymore. This is freedom, wonderful to enjoy a good meal with ample portions and be satisfied. Finally I am in control.
    Thank You Diane Sanfilippo for your book Practical Paleo for explaining it all, an taking the sugar monkey off my back. - 1/14/2016 10:52:53 PM
  • Overeating and eating when you are not hungry is often tied to wheat. Modern hybridized wheat, whole or white, contains opiate-like substances. This is why manufacturers put wheat in most packaged products: to get you to eat more of them.
    When I hit menopuse I put on a little weight and fought to keep it off with lots of exercise. But could never budge that last few pounds. Then I read "Wheat Belly. Now I follow a low carb, wheat-free, high fat way of eating. I do get cravings now and then, but I am rarely extremely hungry, nor do I over-eat because my food is nutrient-dense and satisfies me.
    My mother, always slim and fit, taught me early on never to eat more than I could eat a sall steak tartare after. So I by habit I eat small portions. - 11/24/2015 9:55:04 AM
  • MANNIX2
    is popcorn a good thong to eat when you have food cravings
    - 3/10/2015 1:21:42 PM
  • I agree. Eat better and control your cravings. Smart idea. I need to do this..since I am sitting here at work and craving sweets like crazy. And dreaming of dinner. Hopefully I can start thinking /planning better food choices to curb my cravings. I NEED to do this as my big uncomfortable stomach I have is a source of frustration.And I have no good pants that will fit anymore! - 1/30/2015 7:37:45 PM
  • 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

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