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 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
  • CANUCKSFAN2
    If I waited until I was hungry to eat, then I would be at a 1 all the time. I have to eat on a regular continual basis or I will probably hit the 1 a lot of the time. - 7/29/2012 5:40:58 PM

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