Nutrition Articles

Dealing with Hunger and Food Cravings

Eat Better and Manage Your Weight without Deprivation

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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 affect 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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • My crave is salty, especially kettle chips. There are times I do not give into the urge and there are also those times I feel like I just got to have it. I know I would do better without especially since I sometimes end up with my ankles and legs swelling-up. I have stopped sprinkling the salt shaker on my food and I track it. But, it's hard to let two weeks go by without a chip. - 4/4/2016 10:16:28 PM
  • I will allow myself a small portion if I really am craving something but not over the top. As it is, I am having a hard time reaching the base calories SP is showing I can eat but I am not starving myself - rather the opposite! My craving is usually something salty/savory rather than sweet and usually at bedtime so I just eat 4 Triscuits or saltines and that satisfies it. I've been trying to be mindful when eating and it is definitely helping! - 3/30/2016 10:27:29 AM
  • LIZZYBUDDY0201
    I like the "Healthy living is a life sentence" quote. - 3/26/2016 4:24:33 PM
  • i got some good tips. Good way to start thinking about avoiding crave meals. - 3/2/2016 10:54:17 PM
  • It is a shame this article did not take more advantage of science, because the section on cravings was 90% wrong. Cravings have been proven to stem from malnutrition, which is very serious. A pattern of cravings usually point to specific needs in the diet - often a lack of protein, magnesium, water, potassium, sodium, fiber, carbs, iron, fat, or so many other things. When we crave sugar, for instance, this often means we need to hydrate - in the old days this would prompt up to get a piece of fruit, which had water content. But today's junkfoods are so far from being actual food, they just perpetuate the malnourishment, hence we never feel full. Look up what cravings mean - there is a lot of info online that may help you identify a problem in your body. We don't all have the same needs, and some people have poor absorption of nutrients so need more of certain vitamins and minerals than others. Seasonal Affective Disorder - a desire for sun - often stems from a deficiency of Vitamin D and healthy fats. Craving creamy things may mean a lack of protein.

    Have a vitamin blood panel done if you have not had one lately, and find out if you are deficient in any nutrients. Every one of them is essential and must be in balance for you to feel good, sleep well, and be in shape. - 2/17/2016 8:02:42 PM
  • This article is so helpful - love the hunger chart and would like to try it. - 2/5/2016 1:24:35 PM
  • SKIRUNNER1
    This is one of the best articles I've ever seen on this! - 2/4/2016 3:40:21 PM
  • I know when I am feeling tired and draggy I will want to eat and mostly crave carbs. I try o have healthy options like small wheat crackers on hand and even if I eat more than I should, it isn't too big a hit on my calorie count. I LOVE dark chocolate and regularly allow myself small portions - no more than 12-18 grams usually of my favourite brand and always track it. - 2/1/2016 11:06:06 AM
  • Good article. I have read also that it is important to slow down by chewing each mouthful a little longer. Signals of fullness take a little while to reach the brain. If you eat quickly, you may have already overeaten before your brain tells you you're full. - 1/30/2016 7:44:26 AM
  • I did not know there was a Nutrition Notes section of the Nutrition Tracker -- I must explore that right now!
    I am not sure she's absolutely correct -- I think it would take a lot of celery to satisfy hunger; maybe any food in the right quantity can satisfy hunger -- not sure about this one. Am sure that I feel comfortably full after a healthy breakfast and a delicious lunch, yet I am hungry: my tummy is sending out empty-tummy messages -- maybe because I just did 30 min of cardio -- I could be thirsty, but that's not the signal that I'm receiving. Thirdly, when we have a craving, making a substitution is not going to work; when I crave chocolate, I eat chocolate, enjoy the moment, and put it in my tracker. Gonna check out that Nutrition Notes section. 8-) - 1/28/2016 5:41:35 PM
  • I wish SP could allow for a level-of-hunger rating on the nutrition tracker page -- it would really be helpful. - 1/20/2016 11:49:47 AM
  • Nice article and I, too, liked the hunger chart. My cravings are greatest in the mid afternoon, which is my low point of the day. If I plan a healthy snack for that time, I do pretty good at taming my cravings. No plan? Then I look for a sweet treat, usually the vending machine, with candy. Then I feel guilty as I know better. It's a vicious cycle.

    So, I need a plan, and need to follow through on my plan! Buy the healthy snacks, take them to work each day, and eat them instead of the junk. Sounds so simple when I write it out! - 1/17/2016 10:25:32 AM
  • Woubbie is so right!
    For years I would read articles like this, and think something was wrong with me, I simply could not control my cravings. I would eat a nice well portioned, well balance meal and 2 hours later I would be hungry, really hungry. NOT emotional, NOT boredom, NOT peer pressure. It is chemical, I finally went low carbohydrate, gave up wheat, and I am off the blood sugar rollercoaster. I don't wake up in the middle of the night hungry anymore. This is freedom, wonderful to enjoy a good meal with ample portions and be satisfied. Finally I am in control.
    Thank You Diane Sanfilippo for your book Practical Paleo for explaining it all, an taking the sugar monkey off my back. - 1/14/2016 10:52:53 PM
  • Overeating and eating when you are not hungry is often tied to wheat. Modern hybridized wheat, whole or white, contains opiate-like substances. This is why manufacturers put wheat in most packaged products: to get you to eat more of them.
    When I hit menopuse I put on a little weight and fought to keep it off with lots of exercise. But could never budge that last few pounds. Then I read "Wheat Belly. Now I follow a low carb, wheat-free, high fat way of eating. I do get cravings now and then, but I am rarely extremely hungry, nor do I over-eat because my food is nutrient-dense and satisfies me.
    My mother, always slim and fit, taught me early on never to eat more than I could eat a sall steak tartare after. So I by habit I eat small portions. - 11/24/2015 9:55:04 AM
  • MANNIX2
    is popcorn a good thong to eat when you have food cravings
    - 3/10/2015 1:21:42 PM

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