Physical vs Emotional Hunger - How hungry am I?

Hunger is a biological function of the body's real need for food. A craving, on the other hand, is triggered by a need other than hunger. It could be anxiety, boredom, anger, loneliness… or all of the above.

Cravings can also be generated by environmental cues – a tempting commercial for Ruby Tuesday’s makes your mouth water, the smell of chocolate cupcakes overcomes you as you walk by a bakery. And you simply MUST have a cupcake.

... Even if you’re not the least bit hungry.

There is also a physical component to cravings. The types of foods we usually turn to in times of stress – carbohydrates like cookies, cakes, chips – help the brain release the feel-good chemical serotonin (which temporarily makes you feel really good).

But that doesn’t mean your body physically needs the food. Nor will it fulfill you. These emotionally-driven cravings are rarely satisfied, no matter how much you eat.

How Do You Know It’s Really Hunger?

To make sure you’re eating because of true hunger, rather than a craving, here are some things to think about:

Do a body check. Before you reach for that chocolate doughnut, ask yourself, “Is my stomach growling? Do I feel a bit weak? Is my head aching?” These are signs of physical hunger.

If they’re absent, ask yourself, “Am I stressed? Anxious? Bored?” Then come up with three other ways to relieve the problem. Take a bath, talk to a friend, read a good book, or take a walk.

Write it down. Try to record everything you eat along with what happened right beforehand, to get an idea of your eating patterns. If you find that after every fight with your boyfriend you’re chowing down a box of Twinkies, hunger isn’t what’s driving your appetite.

Then change the food log to an emotions log – write down what’s happening in your life. Sometimes that in itself can be enough to keep you from bingeing.

Exercise. I know this sounds like a broken record but it’s true. Not only does exercise boost feel-good endorphins, it also helps relieve stress and anxiety – which you might otherwise deal with by overeating.

Distract and redirect. I do this with my kids all the time. When they want to do something that I don’t want them to, I try to divert their attention. See if you can do that with your cravings.

So, let’s say you must have a bowl of crackers and cheese dip. See if something with the same texture and temperature will satisfy. Experiment with crunchy vegetables with hummus. Try a dip made with Greek yogurt and spices. A handful of unsalted popcorn. Or make your own baked kale chips.

If you absolutely must have those crackers and dip, limit your portion to a very small amount and allow yourself to enjoy every bite.

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