Hunger Vs. Craving | What They Are and What to Do about Them

♩What’s your flavour? Tell me what’s your flavour!♩…

♩What’s your flavour? Tell me what’s your flavour!♩

Scenario 1:

It’s 12.44pm. Almost all my colleagues are done eating lunch, and I haven’t even started mine yet. I wasn’t hungry. But now I am. I know this because my formerly intense focus has dissipated, and the gentle rumble of my stomach is gentle no more and refuses to be ignored. So I warm my lunch up in the microwave, and eat.

Scenario 2:

It is 1.45pm. I’ve just gotten back into the office after lunch out with a few colleagues and I ate so much that I’ve had to unbutton my pants at my desk (don’t judge me, we’ve all done it). 5 minutes later, when someone announces that they brought back some exotic candy from their recent travels abroad, I sprint out into the communal area and pluck up more pieces than I need. Please note: We have a fully stocked fruit basket out in the communal area ALL THE DAMN TIME, I never sprint out for any fruit.

One of these scenarios is hunger. The other is a craving.

Hunger, adj, experiencing a desire or need for food

Craving, n, selective hunger, an intense desire to consume a specific food, and is different from normal hunger

Why do we eat when we aren’t hungry? Or better yet, why do we eat when we are full?

What is it about the presence of food that makes us feel like we must eat? We are way beyond the times of our ancestors when food had to be hunted down and foraged and you had to eat as much of it as possible because you weren’t sure where your next meal was coming from. That’s definitely a bygone era. I know where my next meal is coming from, or at the very least where I’m going to go to get it.

So what makes me eat? I don’t need cake. I don’t need candy. What is it my body is trying to communicate to me?

Here are a few reasons why you might be eating when you don’t want/need to:

1) You’re tired
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard/said this but sleep is so important. It’s when we’re asleep that our bodies heal and repair themselves, it’s when they grow and develop, and it’s a good night’s sleep that will give us healthy brain function and better emotional well-being (you don’t even have to read a study for that, you know a tired person is almost always by default a grumpy person). But here’s the thing you might not have heard about sleep: Lack of sleep produces similar effects in the body to that of marijuana. In one study, people slept for 4.5 hours instead of 8.5, and ate an average of 400 calories more. The compound produced in the brain due to lack of sleep makes food more appealing, making it naturally, harder to resist. Talk about letting your [food] guard down.

2) You’re thirsty
Yes you read that right. We’ve written about it before, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to mention it again. Dehydration can make you sluggish, telling your body you need to eat food so that you can increase your energy levels. Drinking enough water (the debate continues to rage on about exactly how much this is, but we recommend at least 64 oz. of water a day) will make it easier for you to perceive if your hunger is hunger or thirst.

3) You’re eating your feelings
I’m hesitant to point the finger at YOU and say this is why YOU are eating when you aren’t hungry, but I know it’s a factor for me. If I’m having a bad day or have had a bad day, I am way more likely to eat something because ‘I want it’. I say ‘I want it’ in quotation marks because it’s less about the food itself and more about the fact that I know it feels good to eat that food and I feel less than good, and 1 + 1 = 2. This is why people who are unhappy in their jobs are way more likely to be overweight, or people who are under a lot of stress, or depressed. Negative feelings can lead (unconsciously) to unhealthy eating habits.

4) You’re lacking vital nutrients
When our bodies are vitamin or mineral deficient our brains sound the alarm. This doesn’t trigger hunger, because our body knows we’re full, but it can trigger cravings. Whilst the food you’re craving might not contain the nutrients you are deficient in, it can still be an indication that there is some kind of imbalance in your body. A lack of calcium or magnesium could feel like a donut craving for example.

*BONUS* You’re on your period
Those cravings are real. HOW DARE ANYONE TELL YOU ANYTHING ELSE?! But seriously, hormone fluctuation is a very, very real thing. Progesterone (have you ever even heard of it?) levels tend to be a lot higher during the premenstrual part of your period, which can lead to binge eating.

So how can you learn to tell the difference?
The hunger scale has been recommended by a few different sets of people, but I think there’s an even easier way to check yourself. It’s all about focusing on the feelings you experience and exactly what it is you want.

Hunger is usually in your stomach, cravings tend to be in your head.
Is it that you can’t stop thinking about it? Or is your stomach growling?

Hunger is a need for any kind of food, cravings tend to be about a specific type of food.
I always ask myself this question: “If XX were an apple or a banana, would I still want it?” 9 times out of 10 the answer is no, and there and then I know that I’m not really hungry, I just want something to hit my sweet (or savoury) spot. I might still eat whatever it is, but at least in this case I’ve made a conscious decision to eat something and I’m attributing it to the right feeling, not to hunger.

Hunger usually occurs when you haven’t eaten in a long while, cravings can happen right after a meal.
It doesn’t matter if I’ve only just eaten, or I ate 3 hours ago, I always want a cupcake. On the contrary, if I just ate and I ate well, I am not hungry. For sure.

Hunger will keep you up at night, cravings will pass and you’ll forget all about them.
The only great things about cravings is that they go away if you ignore them. Hunger doesn’t, or if it does, it’s only temporary and will come back and be even harder to ignore.

So here’s what you do with cravings
1. Acknowledge them
Is it a craving? Yes. Good. Now at least we know what we’re dealing with.

2. Ask yourself if really want that food now or if you can wait
Once you know it’s a craving, you can start deciding if you actually want to eat it or not. Just because it’s a craving doesn’t mean you are obliged to give in to it. You get to choose.

3. Feel pleased with yourself
Did you have a craving? Yes. Did you decide you wanted to eat it? Yes. That’s great. You wanted something, you ate it. End of story. We don’t do regrets when it comes to food, we enjoy each and every indulgence.

RELATED: 3 Don’ts That Will Help You Avoid Snaccidents

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.