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How To Differentiate Between Cravings & Actual Hunger

Author: Rudy Mawer Contributing Author

If you’ve ever been on a diet you know how hunger can be a factor that hinders your long-term success. Due to the fact that hunger is one of the body’s natural signals, it’s an unavoidable part of dieting. Many people wrongly assume hunger is always to blame for their lack of success when dieting. While this can sometimes be the case, in modern society we are constantly surrounded by fast food and highly pleasurable sweets and snacks, which set off cravings. Often times, it’s cravings that are to blame when you fall off track.

Learning to differentiate between the two can help you control your cravings for easier, long-term weight management success.

Hunger Versus Cravings

Before we dive into some tactics you can use to counter the feeling of hunger, it’s important to differentiate between hunger and cravings.

Hunger is a biological mechanism that acts in a similar way to a survival instinct. When we have gone several hours without food, or several days with reduced food intake (such as when dieting), our hunger hormones signal the brain that we need more energy. This signaling process tells the command center in the brain, the hypothalamus, that we need to take in calories for energy. Due to the fact that our brain is unaware of how readily we can get food, it interprets these signals as a warning that we may starve to death like our ancestors did. As a response, the body is primed to consume large quantities of food in order to fuel up on energy – in case it has to wait a long time for the next meal. At a basic physiological level, hunger is an important biological mechanism that helped us survive many centuries ago.

In contrast to this innate process, cravings can be both physiological and psychological. Physiologically, a craving can be your body’s way of telling you that it needs something. For example, if you are deficient in sodium, your body will crave salty foods – usually those that are most appealing to you such as potato chips. 

Psychological factors play a very large role in cravings. Emotions such as stress and anxiety can cause you to crave carbohydrates, which boost serotonin levels for a calming effect. Boredom can be another source of cravings. When bored, you may start thinking of foods you enjoy which then gets interpreted as a craving. Finally, smells, images, or thoughts of certain foods may trigger cravings as they make you happy, or bring up positive memories you have tied to the food. For example, the smell of popcorn at the movie theater sparks a craving for it, although you aren’t physiologically hungry.

Understanding these key differences is the first step in taking control. Once you’re able to establish when you’re truly hungry as opposed to when you’re experiencing cravings for psychological reasons, you’ll be in a better position to gauge whether or not you need to eat. From there, you can decide when and what to eat in order to help you achieve your long-term goals.

Countering Hunger & Cravings

Hunger and cravings can feed off of each other. If you wait too long between meals and hunger hits, you may start experiencing cravings for less healthy foods, foods that will make you feel happy and satisfied. On the other hand, if you’re having cravings for a prolonged length of time, your body may convince itself that you’re hungry.

Regardless to which you experience, both hunger and cravings have the potential to wreak havoc on your dieting adherence and long-term weight loss goals. By doing your best to reduce them, you’re more likely to lose more weight, and, most importantly, keep the weight off. Here are some key strategies you can use to counter hunger and reduce cravings on your next diet. 

  

Eat More Low-Calorie Foods & Snacks

Possibly the most important factor when dieting is to base your diet on low-calorie foods. These foods will often have a high water and fiber content, which can reduce your cravings and hunger. Low-calorie foods are often single ingredient, whole foods that don’t affect the parts of the brain that stimulate reward and overeating like fast food and candy do.

Additionally, low-calorie foods are extremely hard to overeat; if you’ve ever tried a paleo diet or a diet based on whole foods, you have probably found that you will feel full following your meals, helping you to lose or maintain weight. 

Quite simply, any natural food we would have consumed hundreds of years ago should be on your menu. Make sure that you include a mix of proteins, healthy sources of carbs (both starchy and non-starchy), and healthy fats, such as nuts, dairy, oils, and avocado. 

Eat Your Vegetables

One of the best dieting strategies you can use to feel full is to load up your plate with plenty of vegetables. While this may seem boring, with a little variation and experimentation with spices, it can make all the difference when you are on a diet. The great thing about vegetables is that they’re very low in calories and high in fiber, which makes them the ultimate anti-hunger food. If you’re able to remain feeling full, you’re less likely to experience cravings, too. 

Set a Fixed Meal Schedule 

If you struggle with hunger and cravings, another good strategy is to get into a routine by establishing a set eating pattern. For example, plan your day to include four complete, well-balanced meals per day which has you eating every four hours. Not only does this train your body to know that you will be eating regularly, but it also helps you stay on track as you know when your next meal will be coming. Avoiding hunger pangs by regularly eating smaller meals will also go a long way towards avoiding any overeating tendencies. 

  

Drink More Water

Water is another great choice for reducing hunger and helping you lose weight. Several studies have proven that it can reduce the amount of calories you consume at a meal. For example, one study found that by simply drinking a large glass of water before their meal, participants consumed 70 less calories. While this doesn’t sound like much, it could total 200 calories per day.

Add in Strategic Refeeds

Strategic refeeds are also important for reducing long-term hunger and improving your dieting success. Several studies have proven that consuming regular refeeds during a prolonged period of dieting, can reduce hunger levels and improve hunger hormones. Refeeds don’t need to be anything drastic, just a few higher calorie days every couple of weeks. For example, you could do three weeks of reduced calories followed by three days of eating at your previous maintenance level.

Remove Energy-Dense Foods

Low-calorie foods allow you to eat a large volume of food, keeping you feeling full for longer. On the other hand, high-calorie foods add up quickly without providing a lot of volume, which can leave you looking for another meal shortly after eating.

For example, if a plate of vegetables has 50 calories and a plate of macaroni and cheese has 1000 calories, what food yields a bigger meal for 500 calories? With the veggies, you would get 10 full plates, but the macaroni and cheese would only allow you half a plate. 

By removing high energy dense foods, you’re able to eat bigger meals of more food. Interestingly, low-calorie foods are also healthy whole foods, whereas most high-calorie foods tend to be highly processed and unhealthy. Focus the majority of your diet on low-calorie foods and reduce high-calorie foods for the health benefits and to control your hunger.

 

Prepare in Advance 

Having a plan and preparing your food in advance is also helpful. If you’re trying to lose weight and are eating spontaneously, it’s very easy to become hungry and reach for the easiest and fastest food, which is usually unhealthy and high in calories. Prepare your meals in advance and keep a supply of healthy snacks on hand in case you find yourself hungry and without a meal. Ensuring that your meals and snacks include a variety of nutrients will keep your body satisfied and cravings at bay. 

Keep Hunger at Bay

While some hunger may be unavoidable during a diet, the above strategies can go a long way to greatly reduce your hunger. Likewise, understanding cravings and having the ability to recognize the cause of them can help put a stop to them, reducing any unnecessary calories you may consume. 

By focusing on food choice, reducing consumption of high-calorie energy dense foods, and being prepared with a meal plan, you will see a noticeable improvement in results, long-term adherence, and happiness during the diet. 

References: 

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