Cope with Cravings

Not all hunger is equal. See how to tell the difference—and find healthier alternatives.
Published January 31, 2017


You’ve been mindful about your eating choices and portions all day. But—whoa!—suddenly, you've got a full-blown case of the mid-afternoon munchies and you find yourself daydreaming about chocolate chip cookies. But you had that healthy salad and soup at lunch just two hours ago. You can’t really be hungry, right?

Probably not. There’s a difference between being internally hungry (it’s been a few hours since you last ate, your stomach is growling, maybe you feel a bit lightheaded, and a piece of fruit sounds good to you) and externally hungry (you ate not long ago, someone nearby is snacking on a cookie, and that’s all you want). In the latter case, outside influences are driving the desire to eat. In most cases, if you’re longing for something that’s high in saturated fat and/or added sugar, it’s a tip-off that you’re externally hungry. Our Chief Science Officer, Gary Foster, Ph.D., explains it in more detail in this video.

The fact that cravings are often related to specific foods—cakes, candy bars, chips—suggests that the problem may be in your head rather than in your stomach. So how to ward off that mid-afternoon snack attack? The good news is that these pangs can pass; one study found that when people just accepted, without acting on, a craving, it helped reduce cravings overall.

But in the here and now, the best approach is to go somewhere else, do something else, think something else. As you get better at dodging cravings, you may be able to spot the stepping stones that lead to them. To identify such cues, American Dietetic Association member Jackie Newgent, RD, suggests drawing a chain. "Write in each link the activities that lead up to inappropriate snacking." This might include:

  • *3 p.m.* Stomach growling.
  • *3:30 p.m.* Anxious to go home.
  • *4:10 p.m.* Go to kitchen to get beverage.
  • *4:15 p.m.* Eat a vending machine snack.

"The best way to break this chain is to do it at the earliest link possible," says Newgent. "In this case, you might want to plan a healthful snack at 3 p.m. since you're hungry." Tracking back along such behaviour chains helps you stay mindful, make better choices, and avoid weight-loss hazards. 

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