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How to Differentiate Between Hunger and a Craving

How to Differentiate Between Hunger and a Craving

Are you really hungry, or is it just a craving? Here’s how to know the difference!

Do you often feel hungry but only crave processed and unhealthy food? If this is the case, you are dealing with cravings. Hunger and cravings begin in completely different parts of the brain. Many people are unable to differentiate between these two. And, this can lead to an overconsumption of unhealthy, processed foods.

What is hunger?

Hunger is a physiological process that starts in the brain. It begins in the special area of the hypothalamus, known as the arcuate nucleus, which has the most number of neurons involved in hunger. Another important characteristic of hunger is that it is cyclical. If you have coffee and breakfast at a particular time of the day, your ghrelin, the hunger hormone, will automatically rise at that time. This is why when you start intermittent fasting, you struggle with hunger at the time of your usual meals. However, the time of ghrelin can change.

Have you noticed that your appetite is a little less when you are on a vacation in a sunny environment? This is due to the melanocyte-stimulating hormone. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, that melanocyte-stimulating hormone can block your appetite. However, since we spend a lot of time indoors and don’t see a lot of natural light due to our lifestyle, we have a hard time regulating our appetite.

What are cravings?

Craving, also known as psychological hunger, is a dopamine pathway. You can feel cravings even when you are not hungry. Food cravings are very similar to alcohol and drug cravings. Cravings are pleasurable and uncomfortable at the same time. If a particular food item makes you feel that way, it is a true sign that you have found what is stimulating the dopamine pathway. Foods like warm chocolate cookies, french fries or processed food can activate that dopamine pathway. Did you know that many companies work to create that dopamine pathway for their benefit? Cravings are very strong motivators. They can motivate you to stop everything and grab the food you are craving. Be careful when you have identified a food that creates that dopamine pathway because it shows that you are not acting out of hunger but out of cravings.

How do you know if it is a hunger pang or craving? 

One of the best tests I have for you to determine whether it is hunger or cravings is a Bowl of Vegetable Test. If someone gave you a bowl of boiled, lightly seasoned vegetables, would you want to eat it? If you are truly hungry, you would want to eat it. A craving, however, is more directed towards a particular food, texture or flavor. Even with the bowl of vegetables in front of you, you would crave something else. With the help of this simple yet effective test, you can easily determine whether it is a hunger signal or a craving signal.

The biggest indicator of craving is that pleasurable/uncomfortable feeling when you eat any processed food. While eating, are you grappled by questions like –whether you should eat the whole thing; or how it tastes good but is bad for you? This whole mind connection is your dopamine pathway and can help you differentiate between hunger and cravings.

How to stop cravings 

The dopamine pathway is highly motivational. When you activate the dopamine pathway, you will want to pursue that food. Have you noticed that if you have your favorite processed food at home, how motivated you are to eat it? However, if you don’t eat that food item for a long while, you are able to control your urges easily. If you have identified a food, drug or alcoholic substance that is producing that physiological response in your body, it is best to eliminate it for a short period of time. This will help you reassess your relationship with that food and stop cravings.

To learn more about hunger and cravings, watch my in-depth YouTube video, here on hunger and cravings.

To reset your gut microbiome and help tame cravings, check out my 7-Day Gut Reset Challenge here.

and how to regulate your appetite, book a consultation with Dr. Shah here.

Feb 17, 2023

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Apr 20, 2022

Thank you for this valuable information. What a great article. I appreciate the break down of hunger vs cravings and a guide to modify/change our cravings. I’ve dealt with gut issues my whole life and learning about the mind, gut and brain connection is important as I work through my gut issues. Thanks you!

Anne Knapke

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