When it comes to cravings, we all know them too well. You might be working on a project at the office and boom—that urge for a sugary donut hits you hard. Yet could that craving just be coming from boredom? Or perhaps anxiety? It’s hard to know whether you’re actually hungry or if some other factor is at play, leading you to want to snack on something just for the fun of it.
And unfortunately, if you keep giving into those cravings too often, it could lead to weight gain or stomach discomfort from feeling too full. What’s more, if you do reach for that donut instead of say, an apple, you might get that dreaded sugar crash a few hours later, leaving you fatigued and cranky. Ugh.
That’s why it’s great to get in tune with your body and its needs to make sure you’re feeding it when you’re hungry and letting it rest when you’re simply looking for something to munch on just "because." Here are a few ways to tell the difference.
You’re Physically Hungry
“True hunger is a physical sensation. You notice it in your stomach. It can be subtle, or pronounced, such as grumbling or an ‘I need food now sensation,’” says Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN. If you have zero physical cues, you likely are eating for another reason, not hunger.
“Sit in a quiet, still place (if you can), take a few deep breaths, and simply pay attention to your body. The more you try to assess if you're truly hungry before putting anything in your mouth, the better you will become at distinguishing true hunger from eating out of habit, boredom or another reason,” she says.
Consider Your Last Meal
When was the last time you ate? “If it's been more than 20 minutes, but less than 2-3 hours, you're likely having a craving. It takes about 20 minutes after eating for your brain to get the message that you're satisfied,” explains EA Stewart, MBA, RD, CLT.
And, if you've eaten a well-balanced meal, it should keep you satisfied for 3-4 hours—where you wouldn’t really need that extra snack. If it’s within this frame, hold off and have some water instead. “Have at least 8 ounces of water. Wait 10-15 minutes. If you still feel hungry, you're actually hungry,” says Dixon. If it’s been over 3 hours, let yourself have something to refuel, but choose something healthy, like a protein bar.
Think About What You Ate
If you ate something packed with protein, good fats, and fiber, you’re probably going to feel satisfied. However, if you ate something too light or with a high amount of refined carbs or sugar, it probably won’t fill you up for too long. “With a combo of fiber-rich complex carbs, some protein, and healthy fats, any desire to eat within less than 3 hours is likely a craving,” explains Stewart.
Are You Stressed?
“Stress can be a killer when it comes to fueling cravings. This is a great time to practice mindfulness and listen to your body to assess what it truly needs,” says Stewart. Maybe you do need to eat—again, think of the time frame—but maybe a walk outside, a meditation session, or a cup of tea and your favorite book could also do the trick and give you what your body really craves.
You’re Dieting Hard
It’s okay to diet to attain your health and fitness goals, but if you’re focused on restriction, you might be more likely to crave foods that are “off limits.”
“Even if you've just eaten a healthy meal, you still may be experiencing cravings if you're denying yourself your favorite foods. I encourage my clients to include a favorite treat in their diet each day, and not put any foods totally off limits—this is great way to reduce cravings,” says Stewart. Snacking on something sweet but nutritious, like a FitJoy bar, could be a great way to satisfy that sweet urge without digging into something that’s bad for you.
Think of What You’re Craving
“I always ask myself, would some carrots and hummus taste good? How about an apple or a banana and some peanut butter? If the answer is yes, chances are, I'm hungry,” says Dixon. But if you only want cookies and not that apple, it’s totally a craving and not true hunger. If it’s the latter, resist and have some water or tea instead to fill your belly, or distract yourself with music or a walk.
Isadora Baum is a freelance writer, certified health coach, and author of 5-Minute Energy. She can't resist a good sample, a margarita, a new HIIT class, or an easy laugh. She writes for various magazines, such as Men's Health, Women's Health, SELF, LIVESTRONG, POPSUGAR, Allure, Health, Cooking Light, and more. Learn more about her on her website: isadorabaum.com.