Is It Hunger or Just a Craving? Here’s How to Know

You know those feelings that convey signs of hunger and food cravings. Suddenly, you realize you absolutely, positively must have some potato chips, an ice cream sandwich, fried chicken or a soda. You look in the fridge, in the cupboard, hoping against hope that the particular food you intensely desire and have to have “right now” is within reach.

Because you are a person who employs self-control, maybe you ask yourself if you’re really hungry, or if what you’re feeling is something else entirely.

You may be having food cravings, which are not exactly the same as true hunger, explains Gillian Arathuzik, registered dieitian and nutrition diabetes educator at Lahey Health locations in Danvers and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Research has shown that only certain foods satisfy cravings, while any number of foods can satisfy your hunger. Food cravings may also significantly impact both body weight and dietary intake, so it’s even more important to keep tabs on them.

Arathuzik explains the differences between food cravings and signs of hunger, and what you can do to stay your nutritional course when you really, really gotta’ have that food right now.

1. They’re Not the Same

“First, try to understand the differences between head hunger — a craving — and true, physiological stomach hunger,” said Arathuzik. To do this, try to assess your hunger level. It helps to visualize a graph with numerals from 1 to 10, with 1 being “starved” and 10 being “stuffed” or full.

“You want to stay between numbers 4 and 6, with 5 being the middle, where you’re pretty comfortable but hungry enough to eat,” she said.

2. Be Firm With Yourself

“It sounds hard, but you can do this,” she said. “Think of alternative activities to get your mind off the craving. Distract yourself and use some imagery. I like to call this ‘urge surfing,’ when you ‘ride the wave’ right through the craving.”

The thing is, it usually doesn’t take that long for you to forget about that bag of chips or that soda. “You find out, ‘Hey, I’m going to be OK and I don’t really need that food or drink,'” Arathuzik said.

And the truth is, you don’t.

3. Understand What’s Happening in Your Body

Real hunger can impact your body and your brain, she says. “If you’re really hungry, your blood glucose may start to drop and you may feel ‘fuzzy’ or tired, and not 100 percent sharp.”

You may experience “gnawing” in your stomach, and yes, even some audible grumbling.

When you get really hungry, you may not make smart and rational decisions about what to eat, and maybe you’ll make poor portion decision choices.

The goal: Head off hunger at the pass. Plan your meals and healthy snacks wisely, incorporating smart choices, so you don’t find yourself so hungry that you’re starving. Get into a regular schedule or pattern of eating, so you’re not nutritionally stranded.

4. You Started It, and You Can Stop It

“We can get ourselves into some harmful eating cycles,” said Arathuzik. “When we eat too much fat, particularly saturated fat, too many simple sugars and consume too much sodium.”

In fact, studies have indicated that experiencing a food craving often prompts binge eating.

“If you’ve been eating high-calorie, low-nutrient-density foods, you may be feeling chronically hungry,” she said. “It may be time for a behavior change, to rethink your entire eating plan and get back to a healthy, balanced diet.”

5. Beware the Cues

You’re at the mall and there’s your favorite ice cream store, chocolatier or doughnut shop.

“Your senses can kick into overdrive, and suddenly you’re having a craving,” said Arathuzik. “You can thank your senses — sight, smell — for causing you to react to stimuli that may not motivate the best food choices.”

Being disciplined and not giving in this time can go a long way toward establishing the same helpful response next time.

6. Say Yes to More Protein and Fiber

Higher protein and fiber intake may help with appetite control and satiety, that feeling of being satisfied and full after eating, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Obesity.

You may also remember a much earlier report that found drinking more water before a meal reduced meal energy intake — that’s food — among middle-aged and older adults. Use these nutritional all-stars to keep yourself full after meals and stop unhealthy cravings.

7. Be Mindful

As you can tell, not falling victim to a craving requires you to think about what you’re feeling and doing. “This really is about mindful eating and being in control of what you eat and when,” said Arathuzik.

Being mindful about food means appreciating it, chewing it slowly and completely, and employing all your senses as you pay full attention to all the aspects of what you’re putting in your mouth.

Arathuzik said, “Remember to always ask yourself: ‘How hungry am I — really?'” The answer may surprise you.

For more information on curbing cravings, speak with a Lahey Health provider.


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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