Hunger versus Craving

It should come as no surprise that when I discuss Motivation and Eating in my General Psychology course I get really, really excited. That chapter is coming up this week and as I reviewed my notes yesterday I realized the topic would make a wonderful post here. Consider this as a pseudo follow-up to my post on the Psychology of Motivation: Eating Edition (where I explored the evolutionary basis for craving fatty, high-calorie foods.)

Class lecture

For the record these images came from the publisher and I take offense to the single cat lady eating Chinese takeout stereotype!

At the start of class I will ask my students to describe to me what physical hunger feels like. About half of them get this blank look on their face as they have spent the majority of their adult lives eating because of reasons aside from actual hunger. As seen in the slide above there are many, many reasons people eat and often they have nothing to do with satisfying biological needs. The next question I ask is "How do you know when it's time to eat? Do you wait until your hungry?" Most students reply that they eat when they are 'supposed to' (like at lunch time or dinner time) or they eat because they are bored.

People have become so detached from the process of eating that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when starting to eat healthy for life is knowing how to differentiate between genuine hunger and a craving. In order to help illuminate the difference I created this oh-so-fancy table:

Hunger vs Guilt

I still struggle frequently with cravings! I'm sure they will never completely go away for me, but the difference is now I know how to spot them and respond to them effectively. Here are some of the questions I'll ask myself to help determine if I'm hungry or craving something.

1. Am I just dehydrated? Many articles on combating cravings suggest you drink of water before you eat something for a few reasons. It gives you time to see if your really hungry or if it may pass in a few minutes. It helps you to eat less with a glass of water in you already if you do decide to eat. Most importantly many, many people are dehydrated and they just don't realize it. Always try this first if your craving something (particularly if you are craving something salty.)

2. Am I anxious/depressed? I can have issues with pretty high levels of stress in my life and when it gets the best to me I find myself wanting to turn to 'comfort' foods. If I suspect I'm craving something to fill an emotional need I'll try to do some stress relieving activities first to see if the craving subsides. Take a walk, meditate, stretch, whatever it takes to make me feel more relaxed and if I'm still hungry after, I eat.

3. Am I bored? My late night cravings are almost always due to boredom. Even though I don't have much downtime the second I lay down to watch some tv I feel like I must have something too much on. My go-to move here is to make some decaffeinated tea. Better than that is turning off the wretched tv and engaging yourself in an activity (watching television is 100% passive) like reading or coloring. I've picked up a mean coloring habit lately!

2013-02-20 14.57.54

4. Am I tired? For some reason I fell out of my morning tea ritual a few weeks ago and I went on a pretty bad sugar binge about the same time. It took me a while to realize I was probably craving sweets as a substitute for the energy I was missing from not having black or green tea in the mornings. Cravings caused  by low energy should be remedied with a bit of caffeine or a quick 20 minute power nap.

5. Am I actually hungry? If so, eat! I am not advocating using the above tips as a way to 'trick' yourself into not eating. You should always eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are no longer hungry. Don't eat until your full - if you do you've likely eaten too much.  Your body takes about 10-15 minutes to actually digest your food and send the signals to your brain that you are full so eat less than you think is necessary, wait 15 minutes, and if you are still hungry - eat more.

Further Reading:

- Family Education: Hunger vs. Cravings

- DietToGo: Hunger vs. Cravings

- Self Magazine: Stop Emotional Eating

- Self's Interactive Quiz: Are You Hungry?

- Spark People: 10 Reasons You Eat When Your Not Actually Hungry

How can you tell the difference between hunger and craving?

What do you do to fight your cravings?