Skip to content

What Are Hunger And Cravings?

What Is Hunger?  Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need energy. Your brain signals the digestive system to start breaking down stored nutrients so they can be absorbed and used for energy. When you feel hunger, your body is telling you it needs more energy.  This is because hunger is a…

Fact checked by Nattha Wannissorn

What Is Hunger? 

Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need energy. Your brain signals the digestive system to start breaking down stored nutrients so they can be absorbed and used for energy.

Uncertain male athlete choosing between donut and banana in a gym.

When you feel hunger, your body is telling you it needs more energy. 

This is because hunger is a physical sensation. You may feel tired, hangry, anxious or have a growling stomach if you’re hungry. Low blood sugar levels or increased energy needs are two examples of what cause hunger.

When your blood sugar levels drop, your body releases a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin signals for hunger, and tells your body that it needs food.

Ghrelin also serves other purposes such as:

What Are Cravings? 

Couple eating pizza in the kitchen

Cravings are more commonly the psychological need for food, and are often triggered by emotional factors such as stress, boredom, or sadness. However, cravings can at times be physical as well, such as those caused by nutrient deficiency.

Certain smells or tastes can trigger the psychological need for food. When you experience cravings, it is usually for a specific food, which is not common with hunger.

Due to the psychological nature, it can be very difficult to resist these cravings.

What many people do not know is that stress can be associated with both hunger and cravings. When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode and releases both adrenaline and noradrenaline. Long term stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels.

Elevated cortisol levels can increase salt excretion, making you more likely to crave salty foods.This is completely natural and good for survival. 

During stressful times, you may tend to crave foods high in fat, sugar, and calories, because these foods increase dopamine and serotonin levels. These are called hyperpalatable foods that can temporarily make you feel happier and less stressed. Evolutionarily, it also makes sense because packing on calories prepares you for famine and survival. 

Nowadays, however, hyperpalatable comfort foods are everywhere. In the long run, eating to soothe yourself can lower the number of these neurotransmitter receptors, so you need more of the same foods or to find other ways to soothe yourself to feel the same relief. 

This cycle becomes unhealthy when you are “stress-eating” on a regular basis. These are also key hallmarks of addiction.

In a study of adults aged 18-56, eligible participants were screened for chronic stress and food cravings using the Cumulative Adversity Interview and Food Craving Inventory tests respectively. 

The researchers found that chronic stress predicted food cravings and BMI. Not surprisingly, food cravings were positively correlated with BMI as well. Therefore, the more stressed you are, the more food cravings you tend to have, and the heavier you tend to be.

Critical Differences Between Hunger And Cravings 

Greedy woman waking up at night and taking an unhealthy snack from the fridge.

Hunger and cravings are two very different things. 

Hunger is the body’s physical, natural response to a lack of food. Whereas an external or internal trigger can cause cravings. The cravings can be either physical or psychological.

Physical cravings happen when the body seeks to satisfy nutritional needs. It occurs much less frequently than psychological cravings, which can be caused by something as simple as boredom. 

Head-driven cues typically mainly consist of mental stimulation – anything ranging from thoughts about what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, to feeling lonely and wanting a comfort meal.

Psychological cravings typically cause you to consume more calories than necessary, making it more challenging to lose weight.  

The primary difference between hunger and cravings is: Hunger is triggered strictly by a physical need for calories. Whereas, cravings are more due to a psychological desire for food, texture, and flavor, or a nutrient deficiency.

While hunger is a normal and necessary bodily response, cravings can at times come from emotional or psychological factors. Therefore, satisfying your cravings is not necessarily critical for survival.

You may crave comfort foods when feeling stressed or anxious. Or you may be more likely to crave sugary or salty snacks when you’re tired or bored. At times these cravings may provide necessary nutrients that your body needs, but other times it’s simply an emotional trigger.

While cravings can be tough to resist, it’s important to remember to distinguish between emotional cravings and physiological cravings.

The solution to emotional craving is to address the emotions/traumas that led to the cravings, while the solution to physiological cravings is to address the nutrient deficiencies that your body is screaming for.

If you crave natural and unprocessed food, it is likely correct and you should indulge. For example, if you crave berries or steak, then you can simply enjoy them. If you crave salt or salty foods, you may want to look at mineral deficiencies. 

Whereas, sugar cravings can also indicate a need for vitamin C. If you crave comfort foods, it can also be an emotional craving and you need to address the cause, instead of gobbling up a dozen donuts.

Get My Free First Chapter Now
Share this article using the buttons below
  1. Ghrelin. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed August 24, 2022.
  2. Baik JH. Dopamine signaling in food addiction: role of dopamine D2 receptors. BMB Rep. 2013;46(11):519-526. doi:10.5483/bmbrep.2013.46.11.207
  3. 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
  4. Strauss S. Clara M. Davis and the wisdom of letting children choose their own diets. CMAJ. 2006;175(10):1199. doi:10.1503/cmaj.060990
Posted in
You'll enjoy these posts

Leave a Comment