Nutrition Articles

Dealing with Hunger and Food Cravings

Eat Better and Manage Your Weight without Deprivation

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Appetite: Your Interest in Food
We talk a lot about appetite: "My son has a huge appetite!" or "I worked up an appetite at the gym." Appetite is not the same thing as hunger; it actually refers to an interest in food. It’s often said that someone’s appetite can override their hunger and fullness. When some people feel stressed, they could lose their appetite and choose to ignore feelings of hunger. (Others respond the opposite way, eating in response to stress or negative emotions despite a lack of hunger or strong feelings of fullness.) And how many times have you sat down to a delicious meal and continued eating even though you were experiencing sensations of fullness? That, too, is an example of appetite overriding the signals from your body. As you start becoming more aware of hunger signals, do not confuse appetite with physical signs of hunger.

Cravings: Your Desire for Specific Foods
Cravings are very different than hunger, yet somewhat similar to appetite. Look up "crave" in the dictionary and you will see "to long for; want greatly; desire eagerly." Usually, the foods you crave are not a necessity, nor do they serve a life-sustaining need. Cravings, unlike hunger signals, will change over time, even over a period of 10 minutes. They are usually triggered by emotions (stress, boredom, sadness, etc.), an attachment or fondness for a certain food, or proximity to appetizing food. Unlike hunger, where any food will quell the sensation, only one specific food will satisfy a craving.

Keep in mind that when you have a craving but are not physically hungry, you must look deeper into why that craving is there. Are you bored? Did you have a stressful day at home or work? Did doughnuts appear in the cafeteria and now all you can think about is eating one (a thought that previously hadn't even crossed your mind)? Dig into the reason behind your longing for a certain food. If it's an emotional need, deal with the emotion. If it's a proximity craving (you see appetizing food and therefore want it), try a distraction technique.

Certainly, it's important to take pleasure from food and get satisfaction from the foods you eat. Cravings are normal and have a place in a healthy balanced diet. But learning to satisfy them in a controlled manner will keep your relationship with food in balance. Constantly giving in to your cravings—or confusing them with hunger—can lead to overeating and an unbalanced diet, especially since many of the foods we crave are high in fat, salt, sugar, or a combination of the three.

This makes it even more important to stop and examine why you want to eat something. Many healthy eaters have come up with delicious and crave-worthy recipes that can satisfy their longings for a particular food without going overboard. Other times, you may simply choose to eat the food you're craving. Both situations are OK as long as you are making conscious decisions and practicing moderation.


When you stop to think about your hunger and fullness levels, your appetite and cravings (both the triggers and your response), the more in-control you'll be around food, which can help you return to an intuitive way of eating that helps you manage your weight without ever going hungry or feeling deprived. Now that's a recipe for good health and weight-management!

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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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