Hungry or Just Bored?

Before you have that snack, assess whether your food cravings stem from hunger or something else.

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Can you recognize the difference between a physical craving and an emotional longing for food? Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. A stressful day may bring on the urge for a gooey bedtime snack, but if that desire had struck two hours after a filling dinner, it's more likely that eating would be an attempt to satisfy your mind, not your stomach.

Bonnie Taub-Dix
Bonnie Taub-Dix

Let's look at the discrepancy between being hungry and having the hunger for food. A physical craving is based upon actual hunger, created by the body's real need for food. You may feel your stomach rumble, or you may have a headache and feel weak or find it difficult to concentrate. Once you eat, you should feel "full" and stop eating.

An emotional craving, on the other hand, is often triggered by needs other than true hunger, like stress, boredom, or loneliness. These types of cravings can also be created by environmental cues such as a tempting television commercial, the scent of a food, or the sight of your favorite dish (even if you're not hungry). Emotionally driven cravings are rarely satisfied, no matter how much you eat, because it's not food that you need to "fulfill" you. Food, at that point, will only make you feel full and filled.

When you eat for the wrong reason, it often leads to binge eating, weight gain, and guilty feelings... not good side dishes to a meal. But these strategies can help you decide whether to respond when you could swear that food is calling out your name:

• Your first line of defense is to have a conversation with yourself. I'm not suggesting that this exchange take place out loud, but you need to talk to yourself with the voice of a caring therapist, not with the tone of a scheming trouble-maker. Ask yourself questions like When was the last time I ate? or Am I really hungry?

Don't mistake thirst for hunger. You could be feeling tired and irritable because you're dehydrated, so instead of reaching for cookies, grab a beverage. Before surrendering to a craving, drink a glass of sparkling water with a splash of juice or a mug of hot tea. A great tip is to cut up an apple and then drench it with hot apple-cinnamon tea. By the time you're done pouring, a warm baked apple will be there to greet you. You might want to try a low-fat, low-sugar hot cocoa to get a sweet chocolaty fix or whip up a fruit smoothie. Research has shown that most of us don't get enough calcium, so try making these beverages with skim milk to give your bones a boost!

• Spare yourself hundreds of calories by remembering one word: postpone. If you're craving a snack and you know you're not truly hungry, wait 20 minutes and revisit that urge. You'd be surprised at how a distraction can not only stall off a snack, but perhaps unseat the need to eat.

• One of the best ways to reduce a food craving is to not skip meals and to fill your day with variety and structure. Aside from skipping important nutrients, missed meals can lead to a feeling of entitlement, making it seem as if an overindulgent snack is owed to you. A less haphazard diet will help you feel more balanced, both physically and emotionally.

If all else fails, perhaps it's best to allow yourself a small portion of the food you crave. Just be sure to savor every bite. If available, try to buy a rich snack in a snack-pack size bag or box, or choose a fashionable mini-dessert instead of one that's full-size.The goal is to reduce your risk of having more than you really need...since you may not have really needed it in the first place.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.