Healthy vs. Unhealthy Hunger Cravings: How to Tell the Difference

Healthy hunger cravings are normal, even important; they are often an indication that you need some specific kind of nutrient. Craving a tomato or an orange, for example, may be a sign you need vitamin c, iron or potassium. Feeling hungry is nature’s way of telling you that your stomach is empty, your blood glucose level is beginning to drop and it is time to nourish your body. On average, if you’re healthy, you begin to feel hunger between four to five hours after your last meal. However, if you feel hungry immediately following an adequate meal, or if you’re hungry all of the time no matter how much you eat, there is most likely some reason for this, other than needing nourishment.

It’s important to establish what it means to have healthy, versus unhealthy—or false—hunger.

What Is Normal Hunger?

Normal hunger generally appears at regular times and at least four hours after your last meal. When your hunger is real, healthy foods sound good and sweet cravings can be satisfied by eating a complex carbohydrate such as a sweet potato or yam, brown rice or dried figs.

What Is False, or Unhealthy Hunger?

False hunger appears irregularly, such as immediately after eating, and only certain types of foods sound satisfying, for example candy or baked goods. False hunger can be triggered by fatigue, stress or boredom, but it could also be an indication of something else going on in your body.

What Causes False Hunger?

One cause of false hunger can be an unwholesome diet. If what you eat is high in fat and sugar, and if you’re not getting enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains, it can leave your body literally starving for more food. Processed foods raise your blood sugar levels quickly, causing your insulin to spike. Your pancreas responds by shutting off, or slowing down insulin production. When your blood glucose level drops, you get hungry.

Acid reflux could also cause false hunger. Acid reflux is excess stomach acid that backs up into the esophagus. Caffeine, alcohol, spicy and fatty foods increase the production of stomach acid, which can burn sores in your stomach lining and esophagus. This creates a feeling of gnawing hunger that can’t be satisfied.

Stress, fatigue, or not getting enough sleep can make you feel hungry when you’re not. Lack of sleep damages your body’s ability to regulate eating, by lowering its levels of leptin, a hormone that tells your body when you’ve had enough. Slowed production of leptin can cause you to become insulin resistant, which can trigger feelings of hunger.

Dehydration, or not getting enough water, can trick your body into thinking its hungry. You need fluid to regulate the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs, and when you’re not getting enough, your stomach responds by giving you hunger pangs.

Unstable blood glucose—blood sugar levels that swing from high to low in a short period of time–can create a feeling of hunger, when your body isn’t hungry at all. Unstable glucose levels, generally from diabetes, can get you on a hunger roller-coaster ride, making you feel like you can’t get enough to eat.


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