Publish 25 February 2021
There is a huge difference between hunger and food cravings. If you easily give in to the latter, you will find yourself bingeing on unhealthy food.  This deprives your cells of the essential nutrients and vitamins for healthy growth and maintenance.
Real hunger accompanies physical signs that let you know when your body is running low on fuel or nutrition. It happens 3–5 hours after a recent good meal. Stomach pains, abdominal growling, dizziness, and headaches characterize hunger.
Hunger builds up slowly and doesn’t pass with time until you satisfy it with a hearty meal or snack. This allows you to properly feed your body’s need for protein, carbohydrates, fats, and specific vitamins for optimum nutrition.
Characteristic of Cravings
While craving food, you develop an intense desire for a specific meal or taste. The irresistible craving might come on after a few minutes or 1–2 hours after your last meal. It is usually triggered by negative (or positive) emotions or hormonal imbalance.
If you have enough discipline to wait or are able to distract yourself away from the source of the cravings, it will pass with time. But if you normally eat healthy and give in to it, you might feel a wave of guilt wash over you afterward.
Satisfying cravings with comfort foods such as sugary or fatty foods, chocolates, cheeseburgers, ice cream, cakes, etc., can prove detrimental to overall health and wellbeing when done excessively.
Causes of Food Cravings
Cravings are not uncommon—97% of women and 68% of men in a study published in the journal Appetite reported experiencing them.
Have you ever felt like indulging in a big bowl of ice cream or other calorie-heavy snacks 30 minutes after a good meal? Yes, it soothes an aching in your soul. I can identify with that feeling too.
You might point out many factors for food cravings, but all fingers point to the brain. Three key components of it—the hippocampus, caudate, and insula—are as responsible for food cravings as they are for drug addiction.
- The hippocampus manages memory and keeps records of how food makes us feel. Because you feel good while eating sweet and calorie-laden foods, the hippocampus remembers and makes you seek out this feeling.
- The caudate plays a critical role in memory and reward mechanisms. By associating actions with rewards (which are usually a sense of pleasure), it helps you form good and bad habits.
- The small area of the brain occupied by the insula is where an emotional connection between food, cravings, and addiction develops.
Causes of cravings include dehydration, hormonal imbalance (during ovulation, pregnancy, or menopause), chronic stress or anxiety, fatigue, boredom, or emotional issues. [2,3] These factors create a void that the brain seeks to fill with pleasurable foods.
Cravings can also occur when the body is suffering a nutritional deficiency. A review describes how salt cravings occur as a result of lower blood sodium levels. 
Overcome Improper Cravings
To triumph over improper cravings, pick up an activity, skill, or hobby that gives you as much pleasure. Cultivate a new reward system with a skill or hobby that interests you. Allow your brain to keep the memory of how it feels as you craft your first friendship bracelet or compose a song.
You can also distract yourself from improper cravings by listening and dancing to music or voice calling your close friends. Deal with the source of the craving. If you are battling anxiety and depression, seek comfort in a therapist, not food.
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- Reents J, Seidel AK, Wiesner CD, Pedersen A. The Effect of Hunger and Satiety on Mood-Related Food Craving. Front Psychol. 2020;11:568908. Published 2020 Nov 2. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.568908
- Chao A, Grilo CM, White MA, Sinha R. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. J Health Psychol. 2015;20(6):721-729. doi:10.1177/1359105315573448
- Davis C, Levitan RD, Kaplan AS, Kennedy JL, Carter JC. Food cravings, appetite, and snack-food consumption in response to a psychomotor stimulant drug: the moderating effect of "food-addiction". Front Psychol. 2014;5:403. Published 2014 May 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00403
- Morris MJ, Na ES, Johnson AK. Salt craving: the psychobiology of pathogenic sodium intake. Physiol Behav. 2008;94(5):709-721. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.04.008
- Main photo by Ponyo Sakana from Pexels.
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