THINK Fit – Hunger vs. Cravings

Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re satisfied.

By Dr. Iris I. Mercado, EdD, CDN


Overeating at a buffet or starving all day trying to eat less and lose weight are becoming disturbingly common eating habits. Too many times you go to the mall and the smell of cinnamon buns makes you buy one even though you’re not hungry because you ate before going to the mall. Learn to eat for all the right reasons, not because a coworker brought cake.

There are many reasons why we eat the way we do. It’s important to understand the difference between appetite and hunger. Hunger is the physiological need for food; in contrast, appetite is the psychological desire to eat. True hunger usually develops gradually and makes many different foods suddenly attractive. Like my grandma used to say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” It gives you a gnawing feeling in your stomach and you may even feel light-headed or get a headache after not eating for a few hours.

When you are not really hungry but have a desire to eat or “appetite”, it can only be satisfied with a specific food that you desired at that moment. “I need a piece of chocolate and all we have in this house is fruit!” Usually, the ‘desire’ to eat a particular food comes suddenly. Cravings are when you have eaten a large meal but still want dessert, when someone mentions sweets and you feel like you need it or when you smell pizza and feel like eating a slice. Sometimes we even eat because of boredom, anxiety, stress and celebration.

In today’s society we relate to food in many different ways. We eat to satisfy many emotions not just the physiological need for food and energy. So lets discuss some strategies that can help you have a healthy relationship with food.

How to Deal with Cravings:

  1. Ask yourself when was the last time you ate? If your last meal was 4 hours ago you are probably hungry. But if you ate a good meal (about 400-500 calories of a variety of foods) an hour ago, maybe you are just having a craving.
  2. Allow yourself to think through your level of hunger or your desire to satisfy an emotional need before you eat anything.
  3. Drink a lot of water. Sometimes we confuse thirst with hunger.
  4. Learn to recognize what triggers you to eat when you’re not hungry. A food diary can help. Keep a detailed food record that includes moods, circumstances, and eating times, this information may reveal why you make poor food choices at times. Being aware of the situations, patterns, and environment that trigger overeating can help you prepare some strategies to prevent it.
  5. Use non-food related activity for comfort. Make a list of things you can do to turn your attention away from food when you are tempted to eat for reasons other than hunger. Some ideas include: call a friend, check your email or Facebook, read a book, etc.
  6. Out of sight, out of mind! Don’t set yourself up for failure by keeping around your favorite junk foods.
  7. Stay active and moving! Regular exercise can help reduce stress, improve moods and prevent mood swings, it helps you reach your fitness goals and avoid eating out of boredom.
  8. Eat when hungry but don’t wait until you’re starving. Once you reach the point of extreme hunger, you get an urge to overeat and all intentions of moderate, healthy eating go out the window. Eating small balanced meals and low calories snacks every 3 hours or so will keep you energized and satisfied, making it much easier to avoid overeating.
  9. Never eat until you can’t eat anymore… You’re overeating! Pay attention to your body’s signals of fullness. Eat slowly. It can take the stomach 20 minutes to tell the brain that it’s full. Take a moment during your meal for self-reflection: “What is my current fullness level?”
  10. Ask yourself questions like: “Am I really hungry right now?” ”How long ago did I last eat?” “If there was no food here right now, what would I do?” “What needs to change in my life to break this pattern of overeating?”