We’ve all been there. We know our favorite food is sitting inside the refrigerator and it’s all we can think about. Craving a certain type of food is perfectly normal, but giving into every craving can quickly lead to binge eating. When we give in to our cravings on a regular basis it can become difficult to determine whether we are truly hungry or simply eating for emotional reasons. Being able to tell the difference between cravings and hunger is a powerful tool when fighting compulsive overeating.
Understanding why you feel hungry or experience a craving is the first step to knowing how the two differ. Hunger is a physical sensation felt when your body needs more fuel. People feel hunger differently. You may find that your stomach grumbles or feels slightly painful when you are hungry. You may also have a headache or even feel light-headed. When you are hungry you typically don’t focus on a certain food: anything that makes the sensation go away is usually all you’re looking for.
A craving, on the other hand, often comes about due to an emotional trigger and focuses on a specific food. You may find yourself craving a sweet coffee drink every day at noon simply because you’re used to having one at this time. You may find yourself reaching for a pint of ice cream after receiving bad news or grabbing a glass of wine to celebrate good news with a friend. Cravings are tied to emotional eating rather than true hunger.
Cravings and hunger are two different sensations that require two different courses of action. When you feel physical hunger, eat something! Going hungry is not a healthy approach to weight loss. Rather than depriving your body of what it needs, eat a small portion of something nourishing and delicious in response to your hunger signals. It’s even okay to have a treat once in a while, as long as it is true hunger and not a craving prompting you to eat it.
Cravings, on the other hand, don’t stand up very well to distractions. Therefore, if you find yourself fixated on a certain food, it is probably based on emotions. Try focusing on something else for a while. Spend fifteen minutes paying bills, taking the dog for a walk, or playing with your kids. If what you are feeling is a craving, chances are good it will be gone once you set your mind on something more constructive. If you are actually feeling hungry, don’t worry: the sensation will be back again before long to remind you to have something to eat. If after 15 minutes you still want that food, eat it. If you are going to eat, portion it out and sit down. Allow yourself to enjoy it.
Some of my clients express feelings of guilt over craving foods they know aren’t particularly nourishing. Don’t let this kind of guilt ruin your self-esteem. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing a craving. Remember: you are the one in control. Wait until what you feel is truly hunger and then have a small portion of that food without shame. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and cravings will lose any power they might have once had.