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Arlene Normand

Arlene Normand

Accredited Practising Dietitian
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Hunger, appetite and cravings – what's the difference?

Experts — Posted 13/04/15

Our needs, desires and cravings can easily get tangled together. Here's how to pull them apart and take back control.

Babies eat intuitively: they fuss when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. As we grow older, our environment begins influencing what, when and how much we choose to eat. Advertising, imposed mealtimes, and yo-yo diets cause many of us to lose touch with our real hunger and satiety signals. We confuse cravings with hunger and end up overeating. By learning to distinguish between the two, you can be more satisfied with your meals and reduce your calories without feeling the urge to continue eating.

Here is 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 for food’. Simply put, hunger is a signal from your body that it needs food for energy. When you are truly hungry, your stomach, brain, or both will give you cues to tell you to eat. Your stomach may growl and have an empty, hollow feeling, or hunger pangs. Your brain may send signals such as a headache, trouble concentrating, irritability or fogginess. Some individuals experience physical fatigue when they are hungry. Hunger does not go away over time – it only gets worse. Only food will satisfy hunger and take the hunger signals away.

Appetite: Your interest in food

Appetite is not the same thing as hunger; it actually refers to an interest in food. It is often said that someone’s appetite can override their hunger and fullness. When some people feel stressed, they might lose their appetite and choose to ignore feelings of hunger. Others respond the other way, eating in response to stress or negative emotions despite a lack of hunger or even strong feelings of fullness. How many times have you sat down to a delicious meal and continued eating despite experiencing sensations of fullness? That too, is an example of appetite overriding the signals from your body.

Cravings: Your desire for specific foods

Cravings are very different than hunger, yet somewhat similar to appetite. Look up ‘crave’ in the dictionary and you will see ‘to long for; want greatly; desire eagerly’. Generally the foods you crave are not a necessity, nor do they serve a life-sustaining need. Cravings, unlike hunger signals, will change over time. They are usually triggered by emotions (stress, boredom, sadness, etc.), an attachment or fondness for a certain food, or proximity to appetising food. Unlike hunger, where any food will quell the sensation, only one specific food will satisfy a craving.

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