The Joys and Challenges of Food: Hunger, Appetite, and Cravings

Published on: 01/17/2024
Mature couple enjoying a picnic surrounded by trees
We’ve all felt what it’s like to be hungry, have an appetite, and experience an intense food craving. Physical hunger is the feeling we get when our stomachs are empty (1). Appetite is the desire to eat food. Cravings, well they are quite different. The joys and challenges of food include our level of hunger, our appetite, and of course, our cravings.According to Harvard Health (2), cravings are described as an “intense urge to eat a certain food—ideally right away.” Unlike hunger, which can be satisfied by consuming any food, cravings are highly targeted toward a particular type of food, with chocolate being the most commonly craved…shocking 🙄 (1). Additionally, cravings can arise spontaneously; you might find yourself yearning for a specific food even after a satisfying dinner when you’re not hungry at all (1).What causes those joys and challenges of food cravings?
Food cravings can be specific and are usually directed toward sweet, salty, or fatty foods. Yes, there is the nationally acclaimed “sweet tooth,” but also salty or high-fat foods which we put on our “never indulge” list, adds to our eventual lack of control once we are around these types of foods (2). Many complex physiological factors contribute to cravings, with a significant portion rooted in our brains and regulated by hormones and other biochemical processes. And importantly, so you do not add to the chaos 😌, there is no such “no” or “never eat” list – all foods fit!! Lastly, also contrary to common belief, research indicates that nutrient or energy deficiencies do not wield substantial influence nor are they common causes of food cravings (1). (On a side note for pregnancy, some theories suggest pregnancy hormones can heighten the sense of smell and taste, creating both cravings and aversions. Topic for another time!)

So what are the causes of our food cravings? We’ll start with the top four causes, according to the Cleveland Clinic: food euphoria, feeling stressed, lack of sleep, and day-to-day habits (3).

Food euphoria: Ever experienced food euphoria? It’s when what you eat hits the “feel good” buttons wired deep in your brain neurons (2,3). These crave-worthy delights not only trigger a dopamine party but also unleash hormones that mess with your metabolism, stress levels, and appetite (2). Picture it like a delightful reward that makes you crave more of that scrumptious goodness (2). It’s like your taste buds throwing a party and everyone’s invited with your cravings getting the VIP pass…! 🎉🍔🍟

Feeling stressed?  Stress is the ultimate craving sidekick! Long-term stress (2,3) turns our cravings into the control tower, powered by stress hormones like cortisol shouting, “Fight or flight, and find food!” (4). Devouring the craved food then becomes our moment of stress relief—a tasty distraction, a mini-vacation from the chaos. It’s like our taste buds are saying, “Who needs stress when you have snacks?” So we eat, only to find our stress is still there.

​Lack of sleep: Ever notice how a night of tossing and turning turns your cravings into little nighttime rebels? Blame it on the lack of sleep wreaking havoc on our hormones (3). It’s like our bodies are staging a rebellion against the bedtime regime! Not catching enough Zs piles on stress, cranking up the desire for specific foods. And to add to the nocturnal drama, sleep deprivation invites hunger to join the party, with ghrelin (the hunger hormone) playing DJ and leptin (the fullness hormone) taking a snooze (5). Not a very helpful combination of happenings! 😴🍕

Day-to-day habits may also play a part in cravings (3). Sometimes, if we’re used to enjoying snacks when we feel a certain way (e.g., stressed or tired) or are doing certain activities (e.g., driving or watching TV, some of my clients’ most challenging time!), then this habit can perpetuate our cravings and have us almost automatically reaching for craved foods via muscle memory before we even stop to think about it.

And we are not done yet. In addition to these four causes of food cravings, other factors can contribute. For example, seeing or smelling a crave-able food can spark cravings (1) as can hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle (2) and any of our hormonal cycles…#relatable. Some medications are known to increase appetite (2). And new research is looking into possible connections between food cravings and our genes and gut microbiota (your body’s microscopic stomach squad, keeping things lively in your belly and working hard to keep you feeling awesome). 🦠

The Joys and challenges of how to curb your food cravings
We don’t want to prevent ourselves from eating if we’re truly hungry. However, there may be times when we’re craving something that we know we don’t have room for and is not going to serve our health or bring us the joy we are hoping for in our heads. In these cases, there are a few tips you can try to help curb those cravings.

Try drinking water
It’s possible that sometimes what feels like hunger (or even a craving) is simply thirst (3,6,7). By staying hydrated throughout the day we can reduce the number of times we challenge ourselves by thinking we need to eat something via our thirst mechanism. Drink up!🥤

Be more mindful
Caught in the act of craving or munching without a growling tummy? We have all been there! Fear not, for mindfulness is here to calm your taste buds the fuck down! Pause for a snack interrogation: Is it stress, boredom, anger, or just plain hunger causing this munchy mayhem (2,4,6)? Take a breath, dive into a mini meditation podcast, or embark on a brisk walk – it’s like hitting the reset button for your inner snacking Zen before that next bite. Because sometimes, your snack attack just needs a little soul-searching and a side of deep breaths! 🧘‍♂️🚶‍♀️

​As you eat, continue your mindfulness practice by enjoying your food mindfully and without judgment. Harvard Health (9) defines mindful eating as, “using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make.” By mindfully paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that may fuel a craving, we can slow down and truly appreciate food.❤️ We can take smaller amounts, smell and appreciate the flavors, chew the food thoroughly, and relax between bites. 

Balance meals
By eating meals that are highly nutritious and contain protein and fiber, you can feel fuller quicker and stay full longer (2,6). Also consider eating regularly throughout the day, as longer stretches between meals can intensify feelings of hunger and lead to eating too much, too fast, or eating foods that are too convenient, crave-able, and not as nutritious (2,6,7).

At the Rebellious RD, we’re all about dishing out the deets on the balanced plate and mastering the art of snacking. The notorious afternoon cravings challenge is consistently a popular topic. But guess what? Our secret weapon is as simple as a snacktime mantra: munch more, munch smart. It’s the rebel way to conquer those cravings and keep your taste buds satisfied! 🍽️💃🥕

Make nutritious snacks more convenient
 Many of us end up craving and snacking on convenience foods because, well, they’re convenient 🙂. It’s quick and easy to open a package of chips and start enjoying them. But we can make more nutritious foods just as convenient by washing, chopping, and packaging fruits and vegetables, and having some grab-and-go dips and spreads available like nut butter, hummus, plain yogurt, salsa, or guacamole. You can even make yourself trail mix with your favorite dried fruits and nuts (7). Yes, you can add some nibs of chocolate!🍫

Another option is to simply have smaller servings, or more nutritious versions, of your favorite crave foods. How about trying your crave-able foods with less added sugar or more protein and fiber? Or take a small serving of your favorite crave food, and a piece of fruit. Sit somewhere you can enjoy every bite of both…and move on to your next activity.

Limit environmental cues
Sometimes cravings are brought on by the sight of a tasty snack on social media or the candy bowl in the break room (2,9). By knowing where these environmental cues are, you can try to avoid them whenever possible. My clients often mention “free” office food, but is it free? It might not cost any money, but it does usually cost your body empty, unsatisfying calories. Try making these or thisand bring them to work to eat when and where you desire, not just because they show up.

Try non-food-related rewards
Sometimes we eat to escape a negative feeling or to celebrate an accomplishment, and there are non-food-related ways to enjoy ourselves (3). Instead of cake, consider doing something you love. You may want to treat yourself to a nap, a hike, a brisk walk, dance moves, a hobby or craft, or even enjoy a favorite book or time with a favorite friend. Waiting for the chance to chat or meet up with my favorite peeps can help me get through any challenge!

Manage stress
Life can be stressful, there is no denying it. Yet, what we can try to do is improve the way we handle and manage stress. This can help to lower our stress hormones and reduce the power of food cravings (3). As I have previously mentioned, those stress hormones…When we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol. Too much cortisol can make metabolism slow down. That increases the risk of weight gain or makes our weight maintenance extra challenging. Stress can also make us tired and more likely to be emotional eaters, leading to more food cravings. 

Get enough quality sleep
Inadequate sleep causes us to feel hungrier and have more cravings. Some studies show that this may be because it can push our appetite hormones out of balance (2,5). Plus, lack of sleep can increase stress which further amplifies those feelings. This is why getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night can help to ease those cravings (3,5,7). This is one of my biggest challenges. Meditation can be a helpful tool here, as well as starting your bedtime routine a few minutes earlier each week, allowing yourself to get your into your Zs as calmly and effortlessly as possible.

If none of these tips truly satisfy or eliminate your cravings, simply enjoy your crave-able food, in smaller portions, savoring each bite, and moving on. 

The bottom line on managing your feelings of joy and challenges when it comes to food cravings and hunger
When our stomachs are empty, we all feel hunger and our appetite hormones have us looking for something to eat. This differs from food cravings when we feel an intense urge to eat something specific—even if our stomachs are full.

All of these feelings and urges are normal and common. And it’s also common to eat to try to satisfy them.

Physiologically, our cravings are impacted by stress and sleep. They are also regulated by hormones, and neurotransmitters (the brain’s messengers that throw epic parties between nerve cells, bringing those vibes for your thoughts and feelings), and research is looking into a whole host of other causes (e.g., the effects of advertising, our genes, and even our gut microbiota). 

​Understanding hunger, appetite, and food cravings involves navigating a complex interplay of factors, and it’s important to note that they go beyond a simple matter of self-control.

The encouraging news is that with an increased understanding of their origins, we can adopt clever strategies to steer hunger, appetite, and food cravings in the direction of our health goals—so we’re not left feeling like they are steering us.

​Do you feel stuck in a cycle of hunger, appetite, and cravings? As a Licensed Dietitian-Nutritionist (LDN), Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES), and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC), I’d love to help.

Curious about getting some backup to make these strategies a delicious reality? Maybe you need some nutrition wisdom to take charge of your eating groove. Let’s chat!
Book an appointment with me today, and let’s see if my magic touch can sprinkle a dash of goodness into your health journey. 🌟🍏🥑

Craving quick and easy recipes that turn high-fiber and high-protein into a tasty adventure? Let’s get cookin’!

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QUICK SWEET POTATO HASH
When you love sweet potatoes, finding ways to include these nutritional gems in your meals can be key for meal happiness :). Shredding them and mixing them with non-starchy veggies is quite the satisfying way to go! My daughter and I loved creating this recipe, which we agreed to make again and again. It could be a side dish for any meal, including adding an egg or two for a quick breakfast with leftovers. Or a serving with a dollop of Greek yogurt for a tasty snack. Red cabbage is a nutritional banger (as my British friend likes to say😉), linked to several health benefits including inflammation, a healthier heart, improved gut function, and a lower risk of certain cancers. Not a fan? Add your favorite greens instead. 🌿

INGREDIENTS
1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
1 cup red cabbage, thinly sliced
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
PREPARATION
Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat.
Sauté onion until soft.
Add cabbage, sweet potato, salt, and pepper to taste.
Sauté until tender, about 10-15 minutes. 
Remove from heat and enjoy!


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CAESAR SALAD WITH CREAMY TAHINI DRESSING
Increasing our fiber intake is a huge part of keeping our appetites, and cravings, in check. Salad is a great way to munch and crunch on satisfying greens, veggies, proteins, and flavor. This could be part of a main meal, side dish, or anytime snack. You could also place a serving in a whole-grain wrap for a quick lunch or dinner. 

INGREDIENTS
⅔ cup nonfat Greek yogurt
1 Tablespoon tahini
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 ½ Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup vegetable broth, low salt
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 large heads of romaine lettuce, cut into bite-size pieces
Protein options: 1 pound grilled chicken strips cut into bite-size pieces, 1 pound grilled shrimp, halved, 16 ounces grilled tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
PREPARATION
Add yogurt through broth into a blender. Blend until smooth. 
Pour into a medium bowl and whisk in the olive oil, half the cheese, and pepper. Set aside.
Add the romaine to a large salad bowl and mix with half of the dressing and the other half of the Parmesan cheese. Taste and add more pepper and/or dressing as desired. Top with your favorite protein option. Makes 4-6 servings, depending on serving as a main dish or side dish.

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CHOCOLATE AVOCADO SMOOTHIES
With chocolate being the number one food craving out there, I wanted to include a healthy and delicious form of fudgy delight. This recipe (and video!) makes six smoothies for you to place in your freezer and consume as desired. If you want to try one before committing to 6 :), just go with ⅙ of all the ingredients and whirl away. It is quick, easy, and oh so chocolatey good! 😋This smoothie could be a balanced breakfast on the go or a satisfying snack, anytime!

INGREDIENTS
1 medium avocado
3 small bananas, peeled, cut in half
6 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, separated 
6 cups fresh spinach, separated 
12 dates
6 cups of unsweetened almond milk (or milk of choice); 1 cup per smoothie when preparing to consume the smoothie
PREPARATION
Place 6 1-cup freezer-safe containers on your work surface. 
Slice avocado in half lengthwise. Remove the pit. Scoop out the avocado into a small bowl.
Place ½ of a banana into each container. 
Place  ⅙  of avocado into each container. 
Place 1 cup of chopped spinach into each container.
Place 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder into each container.
Place 2 dates into each container.
You can freeze all containers until ready to use for up to one month.
When ready to make a smoothie, pour ingredients from one container into the blender. Add 1 cup of milk, your choice. Blend until smooth. Pour into a glass and enjoy!
Makes 6 servings.
REFERENCES

  1. Meule A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current nutrition reports, 9(3), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399671/
  2. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2021, April). Cravings. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/
  3. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, December 14). Here’s the deal with your junk food cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/heres-the-deal-with-your-junk-food-cravings/
  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2023, January 26). Why you stress eat and how to stop. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-stop-stress-eating/
  5. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Sleep. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/
  6. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, March 25). Three reasons you crave sweet or salty food. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-reasons-you-crave-sweet-or-salty-foods/
  7. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 12). Quick snacks to help kick your sugar cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/kick-your-sugar-addiction-with-these-5-snacks/
  8. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020, November). Mindful eating. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/
  9. Harris, N. M., Lindeman, R. W., Bah, C. S. F., Gerhard, D., & Hoermann, S. (2023). Eliciting real cravings with virtual food: Using immersive technologies to explore the effects of food stimuli in virtual reality. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, 956585.

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With a longstanding dedication to healthy cooking and eating, I promote nutrition with a rebellious twist: the belief that perfection is not required for success on your wellness journey. 

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