Every once in awhile chatting with clients, I’ll catch them saying that suddenly their hunger has increased and they don’t understand why. Just as we begin to explore their own personal hunger cues, quite often they’ll go on to mention being fixated on a particular food (such as cookies or chocolate) implying that their cravings have started to spike.  

Think of some of your own common scenarios, such as wanting chocolate around 4:00 pm when that afternoon slump hits, or looking forward to a glass of wine with a piece of pizza as part of a Friday night tradition. It’s pretty clear that these scenarios relate more to cravings, right? Remember that with this scenario, there is a clear absence of true physical hunger, and instead, your head hunger is starting to take over.

This is always an interesting discussion to have because on one hand, true physical hunger may change as your metabolism begins to react, respond, and adjust to daily stressors or new healthy habits. On the other hand, you may have some compensatory reactions kicking in where your cravings are suddenly all over the place, and managing those cravings is starting to drain your battery.

I think most would agree that trying to make healthier choices and lose weight can be frustrating. It really isn’t sustainable to always be battling hunger or white-knuckling it through your day to manage intense cravings.  When actual hunger is not the culprit behind your difficulties with weight loss or shape change, cravings are often the issue. Maybe your stress response is kicking in, you are confusing your hunger with thirst, or you are finding that habitually you are surfing the urge to graze every couple of hours as you open and close the pantry and refrigerator door multiple times.

Although that “running on empty” feeling that accompanies your stomach growling may be a clear sign to eat, there are other reasons we turn to food that are clearly more of a craving issue. Think of things such as being tempted by the smell of dinner cooking, the taste of something sweet on your tongue after an extended period of time between meals, wanting to experience a common meal with family and friends as part of social pressure, and scrolling through your social media feed full of delicious food pictures.  

If I were to ask you to explain how you know when you are hungry versus how you know when you are craving, would you be able to answer that question with a clear picture of your own cues? If not, let’s break it down a bit by having you ask yourself some questions as part of the detective process.

In order to assess how hungry you are (on average) hour-to-hour, day-to-day, ask yourself the following questions. Remember that hunger is often accompanied by a growling stomach, feeling shaky or light-headed, or truly knowing that your stomach still needs some volume to make you feel satisfied aside from having a glass of water. 

  • Do I regularly go 4-6 hours without experiencing my own clear hunger cues?
  • Does my stomach feel comfortable between meals, meaning I don’t feel overly stuffed or have that empty pit?
  • Is my hunger predictable and stable hour-to-hour, day-to-day?

Now let’s compare that to how often you are craving (on average) hour-to-hour, day-to-day, with physical hunger being entirely absent.  Head “hunger” or cravings are things like feeling like you still have “room for dessert” even after a full meal, or obsessing over having something salty after finishing up a decent sized plate of a well balanced meal. 

  • Can I go all day without experiencing cravings, meaning I’m not thinking or obsessing about food immediately after a meal or within 1-2 hours of eating?
  • Do I handle my stress with certain foods or do I find that when my stress is higher I start to search for either sweet or salty snacks? 
  • Do I stop eating when I’m comfortably satisfied, knowing that I could have a few more bites but also knowing that I can also eat again when I’m hungry?

So, now that you have a better idea of how you feel hunger in your body versus when you may be triggered by a social cue or experience and this leads to enhanced cravings what do you do? First, congratulations on slowing down and checking in with yourself to better understand if you are hungry or craving. Then with that awareness, take the best course of action so you feel your very best.  

With true physical hunger, eat; your body is sending you clear signs that you need some fuel. With a craving, either think of your own personal list of buffer foods to incorporate or find a way to keep your head and hands busy through healthy distractions like going for a walk, calling a friend, or practicing your favorite form of self-care.  

Remember, being a metabolic detective means listening to your body, and while it may take some time to figure out how to best manage your hunger and cravings, the time you invest in that process is invaluable. If you still need some help, drop us a comment and let us know what we can do to support you!