Food cravings and hunger are very much associated with the idea of pursuing a new diet or losing weight. They tend to be large obstacles for dieters to overcome as well (or ultimately succumb to) in their efforts to make changes. They are not interchangeable, though; food cravings and hunger are two different states that we can find ourselves experiencing in a variety of different circumstances, both of which can impact (and be impacted by) our weight management and lifestyle changes.
What’s the difference?
Hunger is the normal physiological response we have to a lack of food. Think about those physical hunger signals you get when you go a bit too long between meals, or even mental symptoms like fatigue and fogginess – that’s true hunger and a sign you can use something to eat.
Food cravings are where many can get confused. Cravings are essentially an urge to eat even when you are not actually hungry. They are most likely directed towards a specific type of food, taste, or familiar experience. Emotions tend to be a huge driver for us to experience cravings, thus making it harder to tell a difference if we don’t pay too much attention.
An interesting test we like to try with clients who have a hard time differentiating between the two is to simply grab something healthy as a snack, like some veggies or a piece of fruit – if you’re uninterested in whatever food you chose to satisfy that hunger, it is most likely a craving.
Why do they matter?
A common deterrent to even starting a diet is the idea that cravings and hunger will be amplified as you do so. Both are not exactly feelings we enjoy having (the majority of us anyways), especially when changing our eating habits and caloric intake are thrown into the mix. It can be hard for dieters to navigate these feelings just starting out, and even harder to differentiate between the two. For those currently dieting, hunger and cravings are factors that can encourage eventually falling off plan and weight regain post-diet as well.
Hunger and cravings are normal responses and can vary a lot depending on both the circumstances and the individual. With that said, the literature is still quite unclear on the relationship between food cravings, hunger, and weight loss and the changes that we can expect while undergoing behavioral and lifestyle interventions.
Participants in this study were those from worksites that were sought out in the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area. Worksites each included a range of 100-1200 employees, and the first 4 worksites to respond and complete their screening requirements were recruited for the study. These worksites were randomly assigned to be either a control or an intervention group.
Some criteria needed included a lack of participation in any type of weight loss regimen in the past 6 months before the study period. Individually, participants who were generally healthy (free of medical conditions that would impact diet/digestion) and had BMIs of at least 25 were able to take part.
The central focus for participants was to achieve a weight loss of about 1-2 pounds per week via a caloric deficit. The diet was assisted by providing portion-controlled menu items for subjects to pick from that would both place them within a calorie deficit while adequately meeting the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) recommended for the general population (10-35% from protein, 45-65% from carbohydrates, and 20-35% from fats).
The weight loss intervention being employed involved a combination of educational group sessions and goals/strategies for behavioral change. These interactive sessions were led by nutritionists of whom went over a variety of topics: management of hunger and cravings, social support, overcoming barriers regarding the calorie deficit/diet, portion control, eating out, self-efficacy and self-monitoring, and strategies for maintaining weight loss. In addition to that, participants received weekly support from their counselor via email and weekly prompts for their self-monitored weight changes.
Cravings and Hunger Changes
Questionnaires (the Food Craving Questionnaire and Food Craving Inventory) were used in order to assess the cravings and eating behaviors throughout the weight loss intervention. There are four scales that make up this assessment: high fats, sweets, carbohydrates/starches, and fast food fats.
Think of a common craving you have often, and it will likely fall into one of these categories!
Regarding hunger, we know that it is one of three well-known eating behaviors (disinhibition and restraint being the other two). These eating behaviors were important to collect information on as well and the Eating Inventory (or three-factor eating questionnaire) was another tool used in order to scale levels of restraint, disinhibition, and hunger among the participants while they dieted.
A significant relationship was seen between weight loss, hunger, and cravings. Hunger and weight loss particularly were shown to be significantly correlated throughout the entire study period.
A majority of the participants (66%) assessed at baseline were found to have experienced cravings between a range of sometimes to daily. By the time subjects were 6 months through the diet, there were significant decreases seen in all craving and hunger scores for the intervention group compared to the control group. Food cravings and hunger both declined alongside weight loss, which is contrary to what we’d normally assume when entering a diet. More specifically, a variety-restricted diet.
With that said, it’s worth noting that this study allowed more regularly available food options to the subjects, rather than food supplements or liquid meal replacements. This is important because we can’t exactly speculate that a limited food variety was a factor playing into these changes.
Think about it like this: No one wants to overeat broccoli…
A limited food variety (simple, whole food sources) doesn’t give us much wiggle room to fit in indulgent, hyperpalatable food items in (those high fat, sugary, fast foods, starchy carbs, etc.). These hyperpalatable foods just make us crave more of those food items – they’re designed to do this as well.
The relationship between cravings, hunger, and weight change are quite complex and something we can’t necessarily have predictions for in terms of attaining successful weight loss. It’s suggested that cravings are conditioned expressions of hunger – those of which are unique to the dieter and their repeated experiences. Frequent and intense cravings are typically related to obesity, but they are still subject to fluctuate and change quite a bit.
Food cravings and hunger are normal feelings encountered no matter where you’re at with your health and fitness level. They’re neither good nor bad, but having tools developed to combat them and stay adherent can make all the difference. While they aren’t shown to hinder weight loss, and even decreased alongside it, they are just two of many factors that are important to consider in order for long lasting changes to take place.
It may not be enough to simply hop on a new plan and follow directions. What if plans to eat out come up? What if you’re exposed to a trigger food? How do you handle stressful/emotional weeks nutrition-wise? Doing the inner work and building strong, healthy habits allows us to cope and sustain the progress we make via those diet changes. More research can certainly be done to dive into hunger and cravings independently as they relate to weight management, but cravings are not and should not be a barrier to kickstarting a new program and seeing results as there are ample ways to mitigate and manage those hurdles.
Batra, P., Krupa Das, S., Salinardi, T., et al. Relationship of cravings with weight loss and hunger. Results from a 6 month worksite weight loss intervention. Elsevier Ltd. 2013; 1-7.