Dealing with Hunger and Food Cravings

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 affects 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.

If you’ve fallen into the habit of ignoring hunger cues (eating when the clock says it's "lunchtime" or eating when you are not even hungry), tune back into your body. Keep a journal to track your hunger and satiety before and after eating. When assessing your hunger level, use the following scale to rank how your body feels in terms of hunger or fullness (also called satiety).
 
Hunger Level Sensations and Symptoms
1 Starving, weak, dizzy
2 Very hungry, cranky, low energy, a lot of stomach growling
3 Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
4 Starting to feel a little hungry
5 Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
6 A little full, pleasantly full
7 A little uncomfortable
8 Feeling stuffed
9 Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10 So full you feel sick

Once you begin paying attention to how you’re feeling before and after you eat, you can start to make changes in what and how much you eat, according to your hunger. It’s best to eat when your hunger level is at a 3 or 4. Once you wait until you’re at a 1 or 2 and are feeling very, very hungry, you are more likely to overeat or choose less healthful foods. (Remember: Any food will quell hunger, so we often reach for whatever is easy and convenient when we're feeling desperate to eat.) At a level 3 or 4, when you’re just starting to feel some hunger signals, you can make a conscious decision to eat the right amount of healthful and tasty foods. It's also important to be aware of how much you eat. It's best to stop eating at level 6 before you feel uncomfortably full (7-10). Your brain slowly registers the signals that you're full, and learning to eat to satisfaction without overeating will take some attention and practice.

Another important strategy, as you become aware of your hunger signals, is to eliminate all distractions and make food the main attraction of your meal. Watching TV, reading, using the computer or paying bills while eating can reduce your ability to recognize satiety.
 

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? 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 okay, 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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Member Comments

Good article Report
ELRIDDICK
Thanks for sharing Report
Good advice, thank you Report
Thank you Report
Have to share: I don’t count calories or carbs or points. I don’t measure anything and the word diet it my new 4 letter word. I can’t tell you how liberating this feels. I do the Betr Health food protocol. It’s covered by most insurance. I’m finally getting healthy without tortuous guidelines and I’m not longer made to feel like guilty in the process. Dr Ferro, the creator of this program, completely saved my health and sanity on dieting. I welcome anyone to just try it! Report
Over eating. A bad habit of mine. Report
If it is just being bored I have found a cup of something hot kills the craving - tea, coffee, etc. Report
I still work at this- Report
I work at eating only when hungry. Report
TOMATOCAFEGAL
Getting into good habits takes time and effort. Report
Thank you for sharing some good info. It certainly is useful! Report
I am getting better at and recognizing hunger and cravings. Report
GCVEGAS, at times I do crave protein, esp. things like smoked white fish or rare roast beef. When hungry I will eat any food but my cravings are usually very specific. Sometimes I want guacamole & that is a fat so while I know many who do crave carbs, pls don't assume we are all the same. I do not lack nutrients; but I miss certain foods that are not available where I now reside. I hate when someone finds the latest research & tries to insist we all need to follow a certain theory about diet. Really we are each very different & have various genetic components so I don't believe it's one diet fits all. Rather I think we need to do trial & error plus our body's hormones adjust over time so I believe this will be a lifetime of fine tuning our caloric intake to get & stay a healthy weight. Report
I agree that this is a mixed message. The diabetic goal is to prevent Highs and Lows. When I forget to eat, nobody within earshot is safe: we, like children, need to eat to prevent the hunger tantrums. Believe it or not, when we program ourselves to eat at certain times, we become hungry at those time. Yes. Then we are eating when we are hungry. Report


 

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.