The day is Monday and you have decided that this is going to be a fresh start to the week. Work went smoothly, you got home sooner than expected—traffic was slow and work was productive. You’re feeling comfortable and satisfied after a nice dinner. Most of your meals for the week have been prepped. Around 9pm you’re about to watch a few episodes of the latest Netflix addiction. Suddenly you’re standing in front of the pantry with your hand in a bag of chips living your best life.
The other scenario is it’s the middle of the week, the boss has handed you some extra files to go over, clients to call and meetings to book. You’re running behind, but looking physically calm. The metaphor you would use to describe yourself is a duck swimming—kicking its legs veraciously under water, while everything else is seemingly gracefully. You haven’t eaten much today but are meeting friends for dinner. You’re finding yourself barely reading the menu because it doesn’t matter what you eat, it just needs to be something.
The two situations are very different, but involve a quick ‘need’ for food. The first scenario is the craving for the chips and the second is the need to eat because of hunger.
A craving and hunger are often misinterpreted for one another, so how do you decipher between the two?
True hunger can often be associated with some slight discomfort—that grumbling gremlin in the pit of your stomach. This can show up when you haven’t eaten for a few hours or most of the day. You may even feel a bit of a headache or weakness. A big determinant of hunger is the feeling is not for one specific thing, but food/calories in general. True hunger also doesn’t pass with time.
A craving usually shows up sporadically in the form of comfort foods like chocolate, ice cream or chips. Often these are circumstances like an emotion (positive or negative), being in a particular situation—like needing popcorn in the theatre. The need can occur after you have just eaten and can typically go away with time.
When you’re making lifestyle changes it’s often said that diet is the harder part of the change because food is associated with our comfort, copping mechanism and social supports. But confusing cravings for hunger is a huger deterrent for people reaching their health goals.
In the future if you’re finding yourself in a situation where you’re asking, “hunger vs. craving?” the easiest answer is:
If you are all of a sudden in the need for something random—even it’s persistent; it’s probably a craving. If the need for food in general comes on slowly and doesn’t disappear or increases in discomfort, it’s most likely hunger. Also, just asking yourself “when was the last time I ate?” is a quick decipher tool.