Do you struggle to tell the difference between a food craving and true physical hunger?
If you do, then peel your eyes, because today, I’m sharing some tips to help you spot them both a mile away and help you kick those cravings to the curb.
Here we go.
Are you really hungry?
Food cravings are pretty sneaky.
Unless you take a step back to ask yourself “Am I really hungry?”, food cravings can easily trick you into thinking you are and convince you to eat as soon as humanly possible.
Food cravings draw you in. And once you’re cast under their spell, it becomes very easy to eat beyond your physical needs. A piece of cake…literally.
To be clear, eating beyond your needs (which means beyond the feeling of satisfaction at the end of a meal) happens to all of us. The dessert that was too good to pass up or that extra helping that sent you into deep-breathing mode at your weekend fam-jam.
But when it happens repeatedly, when giving-in to cravings and emotional hunger becomes the rule rather than the exception, it can be a slippery slope…
One of the cornerstones of a healthy diet is to eat mindfully, which means being aware of and respecting your physical hunger and fullness cues. Think of these signals as your body’s internal calorie tracker: regain sensitivity to them and you’ve got yourself the most intuitive way to feed your body what it needs. No iPhone app required.
But what happens when the wires get crossed? When you can’t tell true hunger from a craving? You may have experienced this if you’ve ever said to yourself…
I need sugar or I need soda or I need chocolate or pizza or ________ (food of choice).
Or how about when you need something sweet or carb-y to gain a sense of calm and pick yourself up or when you need something crunchy to ease the tension after a stressful day.
This need may feel physical, but it isn’t your true hunger talking. Unlike physical hunger which asks for food to nourish your cells and to survive, this need is really more of a want. Your body doesn’t need sugar, or soda, or chocolate to survive. But it’s asking for it. This is the sign of an emotional hunger, asking for food to serve a self-medicating purpose.
Here are some other clues to help you tell the difference:
It’s probably physical hunger if…
- You’re feeling symptoms such as stomach rumbling or hunger pangs. Note: if you’re someone who “doesn’t feel hunger” or “can go an entire day without eating” I hate to break it to you, but you’re mistaken. The problem is that you’ve trained yourself to ignore these signs for so long that you no longer recognize them. Here’s a tip: lack of focus, headaches, irritability and energy crashes are also signs of physical hunger.
- The feeling builds gradually, over a period of hours and intensifies with time.
- Drinking water doesn’t make it go away.
- You would eat pretty much anything. Physical hunger doesn’t discriminate. It just wants food.
It’s probably a craving if….
- The urge to eat comes on suddenly. You almost feel compelled to eat. This could be due to an emotion or a form of conditioning, after having seen or smelled or heard something food-related.
- You want something very specific.
- Your stomach is full, but your head is telling you to eat more food.
- There’s an emotion or feeling involved: stress, anger, sadness, happiness, boredom, fatigue, loneliness.
- You are overcome with guilt and fall into negative self-talk after the fact.
7 steps to conquer your cravings
Step 1. Call out the craving. It’s impossible to conquer a craving unless you can recognize the craving. From the tips above, you should now be able to do this easily.
Step 2. Journal it. Once you’ve called it out, write it down. Specifically, write down what the craving was, what/how much you ate and most importantly how you felt. I urge you to not skip this step. It can be easy to feel “above” journalling, until your realize how powerful it can be at unveiling sides to yourself you never knew existed. Documenting cravings allows you to unearth their trigger, the emotion or association behind the craving. Maybe you will uncover that when you’re lonely, you feel the urge to curl up with a bowl of ice cream (emotion). Or maybe you’ll notice that whenever you watch a movie, you feel the need for something crunchy (association).
Step 3. Just feel it. High fives for getting to the root of the problem! Now for the sticky part. Once you know what your emotional trigger is, the next time you feel the emotion coming on…just feel it.
This means that whatever your trigger is, get used to hanging out with it for a while. Feeling sad? Be sad and maybe have a cry. Feeling tired? Take a power nap. Feeling stressed? Freak out! The goal is to prove to yourself and train yourself to deal with it without needing food to mask it.
Granted, feeling sad isn’t fun and maybe a dose of sugar will provide the rush of happiness and instant gratification you need to pull yourself out of your mood. And sure, you may justify your actions with an extra cardio session the next morning.
But here’s what will happen:
The rush will fade. And the emotion that triggered the craving? It hasn’t gone anywhere. What’s more, is that it has been intensified by new feelings of guilt.
Instead, try this:
Feel the feeling and resist the urge to cover it with food. Maybe after your cry you will feel better or after the nap you will feel refreshed or after the freak out you will realize that you were overanalyzing the situation and that things aren’t so bad after all.
Step 4. Keep yourself busy. The next time you get a craving, wait at least 10-15 minutes, the time it normally takes for it to subside. Keep yourself busy, ideally by doing an activity that will tend to your emotional trigger:
- Listen to music or have a dance party if you’re stressed or anxious.
- Call a friend that makes you laugh if you’re feeling down.
- Read a book, walk your dog or walk yourself if you’re feeling restless or bored.
- Chew on gum if you just want something to munch on.
Step 5. Eat real food. More vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, fish, meat, legumes, intact grains. Less refined carbohydrates, sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavours, dyes and processed fats. Processed foods are engineered with these highly stimulating ingredients that make it very easy to eat beyond your physical needs. (For a great book on the topic, check out Salt, Sugar,Fat: How the Food giants hooked us by Michael Moss.)
So stop selling yourself short and telling yourself that you lack the willpower or have no control. Give yourself a chance by gradually decreasing the processed load in your diet and increasing the real foods you eat. Think of it like real food rehab for your tastebuds.
And when you desperately want to tame a craving , do it with a little bit of something real: A square of good quality dark chocolate, dates stuffed with pecans and faux banana “ice cream” are some of my personal favourites.
Step 6 . Keep your physical hunger under control. Getting too hungry will make it easy for anyone to overeat. Put the chances on your side by keeping your hunger in check:
- Eat balanced meals that include fibre, protein and fat to maximize fullness and satisfaction.
- Stay hydrated since your body may interpret thirst as hunger.
- Eat regularly or every 3-4 hours and don’t skip meals.
- Sleep 7-8 hours per night because lack of sleep is directly related to increased stress and cravings for sweet and high-calorie foods.
- Slow down and give yourself at least 20 minutes per plate.
Step 7. Celebrate your body and your health every day. Having a a loving relationship with your body makes you less likely to take your frustrations out on it with food. Here’s how to celebrate your health:
- Move your body! Endorphins released during exercise are known to improve mood turning regular workouts into powerful antidepressants.
- Introspect daily through meditation, yoga, deep breathing or journaling to keep in touch with yourself. When we ignore ourselves, lose focus, feel unauthentic and confused, this creates an inner-turmoil and uneasiness that can make us turn to food for comfort.
- Surround yourself with positive people to feel connected, uplifted, inspired and motivated. This mindset will dissolve any negativity that may be fueling your cravings. Plus, connecting with people who celebrate their own health will make you want to treat your body in a positive, healthy way too.
Can you tell the difference between cravings and physical hunger? How do you conquer your cravings?