Content reviewed by: Dr. Adarsh K Gupta.
Before we can do anything about hunger and craving, let’s first understand what is hunger and a craving.
What is hunger?
Hunger is not that easy to define as it seems. Many of you may have never felt true hunger. You may have felt discomfort but never have let yourself experience true hunger. You may be eating past hunger for such a long time that you can no longer differentiate between hunger and the feeling of anxiety, stress, boredom, or any number of other emotional and situational stimuli.
A true feeling of hunger arises when you let yourself go without eating for a long period of time. The true “hunger” slowly develops and it goes away after eating anything (not any particular food but any food.) Hunger is a biochemical process and an interplay between your body and brain. There are hormones in the gut that get released if you don’t eat for a long period of time. These hormones then signal the brain hunger center to create the feeling of hunger so that you will go eat. This is not a simple mechanism but a very complex one. There is a constant balance of hunger hormones and satiety hormones to keep a steady state in the body. There is also another mechanism (called the hedonic mechanism) that takes over this biochemical process. We will learn about this in a little detail when we discuss cravings.
Each of us is born with a complex mechanism and an innate sense of hunger/satiety. When you were a baby and felt this sensation of hunger, you cried. Your mom pacified you with a bottle or breast, and when you were no longer hungry, you pushed the food away (due to a feeling of satiety.) Before you were able to have a conversation, you were aware of hunger and communicated that to your parents.
As a toddler when you beginning to eat baby food, you were still controlled by the hunger/satiety mechanism. Even if your mom wanted to get something extra, you clenched your teeth and did not let anything go in your mount when you had the feeling of satiety. If she did manage to insert some food, you spit it out, sometimes on your bib, sometimes on mom. The message was clear. “I am full, Mommy.” This was your satiety feeling.
So, how is hunger different from craving?
What is a Craving?
You are not hungry most of the time yet you want to eat certain food. This occurs particularly when something smells good, looks good, or tastes good, whether or not you think you are. All food is prepared to tempt your taste buds, even though you’re not hungry. So, why do you want to eat that food when you are not hungry?
This is where the hedonic mechanism (we touch on that in earlier paragraphs) comes into play. This mechanism is derived from hormones in the brain that create a happy feeling (dopaminergic hormone). This is due to the connections brain develops with certain food. As a child, when you cried, mom gave to candy or cookies or cakes or any other ethnic sweet. And you felt happy! Over time, this developed an association of that particular food with happiness. Your brain made an association that when you had cookie or candy or cake, you felt happy. Your brain even made connections with the look, taste, smell of that particular food. Now, when you feel anxious, stressed, and tense, you desire those “comfort foods.” This is referred to as cravings. One may develop emotional triggers to many other things as well, such as going out with friends, afternoon tea talk, eating while driving, eating while watching TV. These triggers will also prompt to eat something. This is not hunger but a craving. The Daily Food Journal helps you pinpoint these triggers daily while you track your food intake.
Just knowing you are not hungry most of the time is a helpful piece of information. You may even have pinpointed the reasons you’re thinking of food, reasons that seem to justify your eating when you’re not hungry. I’ve heard excuses as varied as “I got so angry because I couldn’t get a cab” to “I got caught in a downpour without an umbrella.” Many of these reasons might seem a valid enough reason to make you eat. They are not.
What can I do to control my cravings?
There are multiple options to control one’s hunger/cravings:
- Keeping a Food Journal. The first step is to keep a food journal. Daily Food Journal helps you identify triggers and behavior patterns. Identifying habits requires guidance, introspection, and patience, but most of all honesty. Once you acknowledge, “Yes, I do that,” you can decide you don’t want to do that anymore and begin to do something else, instead.
- Focus on Behavior Change. It is unrealistic and self-defeating to expect to go from habitual, compulsive, or addictive eating behavior to a calm, rational, in-control eating person by reading an article, even this article. Behavioral change requires a structured approach. In the book “Don’t Just Lose Weight, Lose Inches”, you will learn about a structured approach to control your hunger, lose fat and boost your metabolism. Behavioral change is a slow process and requires consistency.
- Appetite Suppressants. Prescription appetite suppressants can also be useful short-term to control hunger/cravings while you are learning a new behavior. The appetite suppressant should be used in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle where you cut down your daily caloric intake and maintain daily physical activity to about 30-45 minutes daily. You should take these prescription medications under a healthcare provider’s supervision.
- Dietary Supplements. For the short term, one can use adjunct therapies to help control hunger. A Japanese herb mix produced about 30 lbs of fat loss in a month. It may be worth trying. While these therapies provide some help, you should focus on altering the automatic learned responses of eating by creating new and effective alternative behaviors. Reminding yourself of these alternative behaviors daily and being consistent, a new behavior will develop, leading to permanent weight loss.
- Eat Enough Protein. Eating protein-rich food can increase the feeling of fullness, make you eat less at your next meal, and help you lose fat. In addition, a high-protein intake may help to prevent muscle loss when daily calories are reduced for weight loss.
- High Fiber in Diet. A diet high in fiber intake stretches the stomach and slows gastric emptying, which results in a feeling of fullness. Fiber-rich whole grains can also help reduce hunger and keep you feeling full.
Your original patterns evolved over a lifetime. Now you can consciously plan the person you want to be. It will take time, but it WILL happen!
What to do when you are not hungry but tempted?
You can do many things when food is offered, baked, cooked, prepared, and present just for you. Learn how to handle the compelling urges at the office, in a restaurant, or at home. Learn that an umbrella-topped pushcart, wafting a familiar aroma, doesn’t always mean you have to eat a hot dog.
Hunger develops slowly, and if you eat anything, it goes away. Craving occurs abruptly, and if the mind gets busy, it goes away. Remember this difference!
- Distract yourself for 20 minutes. The next time you’re at home and thinking of food, and you just ate a little while before, set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes and distract yourself with some activity. For example, set the timer, get busy with some other project, and when the bell goes off, you not only forget you set the bell, but you may not even know why you set it in the first place.
- Think about the outcome. The first time you try to change a behavior, it might feel awkward and uncomfortable. It is different from what you’ve done in the past. But no matter how uncomfortable you feel at the beginning of a new habit, nothing is as uncomfortable as choosing what to wear based on how much of your body it will cover. Nothing is as uncomfortable as selecting what to wear based on what fits on a particular day rather than what is appropriate for a particular occasion.
- Control portion size. If you find yourself unable to control your craving, at least control the portion size and calorie intake. To achieve low calories, take the smallest portion of the food that you are craving and eat it V E R Y S L O W L Y!. By doing so, you will enjoy the taste for a longer period of time but you will not take in too many calories and after some time, this craving will pass.
How to stay motivated?
Maintain a positive, I can do it mental attitude, and positive results happen. Avoid negative words about yourself, such as bad or failure or I blew it.
For best results, attempt many kinds of change in your life. If drinking water doesn’t help by itself, perhaps the water and deep breathing will be helpful. Sometimes water, deep breathing, changing location and calling a friend are what you need. It is the action of taking an action — any action – that gets the result. It almost doesn’t matter which techniques you use to repattern – what is important is that you take swift, purposeful, and immediate action. The quicker the action, the quicker the moment of anxiety passes.
It is possible that sometimes you might try every technique available and the moment is still difficult. It happens. But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. It just means your results have not quite accumulated enough to effect a noticeable change. It doesn’t mean nothing is happening. It just might be too subtle for you to notice. Keep doing it anyway. It accumulates. Continue trying, and from each seemingly failed, imperfect human attempt, the structure of the old, destructive habit will be eroded another little bit . . . you will be that much closer to success which is eating only when hungry.
Changing habits takes time but it is possible!
Sometimes one technique works, sometimes another. Every food encounter is different from every other one. Everyone responds to each stimulus differently and responds to repatterning techniques in a different way, too. A combination of several techniques may be just the ticket when one is not enough.
If it doesn’t taste good or look good or satisfy the eye and palate, don’t eat it. We all belong to a nation of people who finish everything on their plate. That is not necessary. You may leave food over. It’s okay. Food is wasted if you put it into a body that doesn’t need it. Better to throw it away. If you order less the next time, there will be less to waste.
When you go off your program because you’re human, you didn’t blow it, wasn’t bad, or a failure. Don’t beat yourself up. Simply get back on your program at the very next meal. Try to figure out what you could do next time the same thing inevitably happens. The quicker you’re back on your program, the more you’ll want to stay on your program. It is becoming a comfortable, enjoyable, and preferred behavior.
Think of things you can do if you’re thinking about eating but know you’re not hungry.