You just had a bad fight with a family member. You feel upset and quite angry. All you can think about is getting a hot fudge sundae from the fast food drive through. Maybe it will help you calm down.

Or, you are bored with nothing to do. The brownies in the freezer seem to be calling your name. And you can’t get the craving out of your mind.

Or, it’s been a stressful day. The kids are fighting, your spouse isn’t helping and you have a million things to do. A treat from the pantry sounds good at this moment. Why not take a break and eat something enjoyable to lift your spirit.

In all these cases, you probably realize that the person is not really hungry, rather wanting to emotional eat. This is because cravings hit us when we experience mood changes, when we want to relax or when we just feel bored.

Here is how to tell the difference between cravings and hunger:

  1. What do you want to eat? Usually cravings are foods like chocolate, sweets and foods rich in fat. When you are hungry, you don’t really care what food to eat. You just want to eat. So the fact that all you can think about is candy, ice cream, pizza, those brownies, or some other fatty food indicates craving not true hunger. When you are hungry, any healthy food does the trick.
  2. What triggers your feeling to eat? If you want to eat because of an emotion, that is craving. So pay attention to what happens right before you grab that candy bar. Emotions are triggers for cravings. When I help people break emotional eating, we keep record of what prompts that feeling to reach for a snack. Usually, it is negative emotion. However, some people eat when they are happy as a way to celebrate. So right before you reach for food, ask, “What just happened? I am feeling something that is making me want to eat or am I really hungry?”
  3. Does the feeling of wanting to eat pass? If you wait 20 minutes or more, does the urge to eat pass? With hunger, it will not. When you crave something and allow time to pass, the feeling of needing to eat goes away if you distract from the food. If your stomach is rumbling, you have a headache or feel weak, those are all signs of hunger.
  4. Did you eat but still crave? This is obviously not hunger, rather an an urge to eat something you really wanted but didn’t. Sometimes it is best to just eat the food you crave and get it over with!

The best strategy to deal with a carving is to distract yourself until the feeling subsides. Distraction can be a walk, reading, writing, listening to music, talking to friend, exercise–anything that shifts your focus away from the food. After 20 minutes the craving should subside. If you crave related to a negative feeling, engage in positive self-talk and tell yourself, eating won’t take care of the feeling. And remember,  awareness of your emotional eating is the first step to make a change.

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