What is the difference between hunger and cravings?

Craig B. Primack, MD
General Practice
Is that doughnut calling to you because you're really hungry -- or because it's set off a longing for a little something sweet? In this video, bariatric medicine specialist Dr. Craig Primack explains how to tell the difference between physical hunger and a food craving that can derail your diet.
Brad Lamm
Addiction Medicine
Hunger is the actual need to eat and nourish your body, and cravings are an addiction response you have, that feeling that you “need to feed.” A major clue is that foods with high levels of sugar, such as chocolate, are more frequently craved than foods with lower sugar glucose, such as broccoli because sugar is addictive.

Eating sugary foods or nutritionally vacant foods made of refined flour (white bread, crackers, donuts, the majority of non-home baked goods) actually floods you with an initial speedy rush that quickly nosedives, leaving you depleted and craving another fix.

Cravings and hunger are different sensations. The body regulates hunger, while the mind plays a much larger role over cravings.

Hunger signals our brain that is time to eat, communicating from abdomen to the brain via the vagus nerve.

The hunger cycle in human begins begin with a hormone called ghrelin.

Our blood sugar and insulin levels begin to drop when our bodies have burned up the food in our stomachs, then ghrelin communicates that fact to the hypothalamus in our brain.

The hypothalamus, which is housed in the deep center portion of our brain cavity, regulates such body functions as sleep, sex drive and thirst. When the hypothalamus receives the message that we need to eat something, it triggers the release of neuropeptide Y, when then stimulates our appetites.

Once we recognize our bodies wants food and we start to fill it up, then another process occurs to counter that feeling of hungry - to prevent us from gorging ourselves.

Our fat tissues expel a hormone called leptin, which tells our brains that our bodies are satisfied and we can stop eating. That is accomplished by turning down production of neuropeptide Y and ratcheting up levels of an appetite suppressant in our bloodstream called proopiomelanocortin.

Another job that that the hypothalamus does is to monitor our blood sugar and insulin levels to ensure we have eaten enough to bring those levels back up.

This is not an instantaneous process, which helps why we can feel too uncomfortable after overindulging in a large meal.

Dr. Mike Dow, PsyD
Addiction Medicine

Psychotherapist Dr. Mike Dow discusses the difference between hunger and cravings. Watch Dr. Mike Dow's video for information on addiction, food disorders and relationships.

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
When you are hungry, the body actually needs nutrients -- while cravings tend to point to another situation happening in the mind or body. In this video, I will explain the main difference between hunger and food cravings. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.