Food Cravings vs Hunger
By: Jessica Behagen, LMFT, Clinical Therapist, Wheaton Franciscan Behavioral Health
Most people have struggled at one point or another with the strong desire to eat a specific food item or type of food. Cravings are common but can often present a challenge to those who are working to alter their current lifestyle. Many factors contribute to food cravings, but there are also many strategies to reduce the potential impact food cravings may have on your journey to reach your goals.
First, it’s helpful to recognize that being hungry and craving a food are two different things.
What’s the difference?
Cravings come on suddenly and you may feel a sense of urgency to satisfy
Hunger comes on gradually; you typically feel your body’s need for food over time
Cravings are specific, desiring a certain food or type of food and nothing else will do. This is usually a desire for instant gratification (often with sugary or fatty foods)
Hunger is broad and you are likely willing to adjust or choose from a variety of options in order to fulfill physical hunger
Cravings may not be satisfied when your stomach feels full, feeling “stuffed” or discomfort
Hunger dissipates after eating enough and you are more likely to be able to stop eating and move on with your day
Cravings are usually time-sensitive, meaning that the desire for food may dissipate if distracted.
Hunger may increase as time passes or go away but then come back with intensity
Cravings are more likely to happen during certain emotional states (feeling bored, feeling stressed, feeling upset)
Physical hunger is more likely to be predictable (when having not eaten in several hours or eating very little)
That information itself may increase your mindfulness of checking in with yourself before deciding to eat. However, there are many other strategies to keep in mind as well
What can help?
Monitor your sleep - certain body chemicals increase when you are sleep deprived, this is the same chemical that controls appetite and desire for food
Distract - studies show that when people crave a specific food they have in their minds a visual image of that food. The more you think about the particular food the more your body responds anticipating that food. Focusing on another task that requires concentration, or visualizations that involve other body senses have been shown to impact the intensity of food cravings (ie imagining the sights and smells of the beach, aromatherapy, puzzles, etc)
Prepare - Everyone experiences food cravings and it is not realistic to be able to control they occur entirely. Think management or “riding the wave”. Have pre-packaged snacks on hand, a go-to pleasant picture or mental image, a planned option for distraction (particular phone game, activity, pencil and paper to draw with, etc.) that is accessible in whatever situation you are in during the day.
Take breaks - delaying diving into a meal or snack may help determine if it is hunger or a craving. Waiting 5 minutes as well as taking breaks while eating can help build train your brain to practice impulse control.
Be positive- negative and self-critical thinking can lower Serotonin levels which increases food cravings and increase Cortisol levels (stress hormones) which increase the urge to seek comfort often with food. Eliminate “can’t” statements such as “I can’t stop myself” or “I can’t eat this,” with more positive phrases such as “I will get better at this” or “I choose not to eat this” which gives you a sense of control.