THE BLOG
07/17/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Is It Hunger? Or a Craving?

Ever wonder how to tell the difference between a craving and real hunger? It's an important distinction to make for yourself if you are interested in health and especially if you are trying to lose weight. Cravings will often masquerade as hunger, but are really something entirely different.

Let us look at real hunger first so we can compare. Hunger is the body's way of letting you know it needs fuel. The body is intent on survival and so hunger for food is built into our genes. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be here anymore. Just like sex is a drive that is built in, so is hunger. Without food and sex, humans would be long gone.

So, once we establish that hunger is normal, natural, inevitable and extremely important, it becomes our friend. We need it! We also need to learn to recognize it and work with it appropriately if we want to be healthy and live at a healthy weight.

Hunger is a feeling. There are differences in how we experience it, but if you are tuned in to your body, you will notice one of several signals. Your stomach might feel empty. You might even hear gurgling or get "hunger pangs" that come from your stomach letting you know it is empty. The Wiki explains it like this:

The physical sensation of hunger is related to contractions of the stomach muscles. These contractions -- sometimes called hunger pangs once they become severe -- are believed triggered by high concentrations of the hormone Ghrelin. The hormones Peptide YY and Leptin can have an opposite effect on the appetite, causing the sensation of being full. Ghrelin can be released if blood sugar levels get low -- a condition that can result from long periods without eating. Stomach contractions from hunger can be especially severe and painful in children and young adults.

I have worked with people who are so out of tune with their bodies that they don't experience stomach hunger. Instead they will feel light-headed or even get headaches. That is their cue to eat something.

So true hunger is the body's way of letting you know you need food. When you feel that way, you will most likely want healthy food. Nutritious food. Not cookies, candy, cake, etc...

Cravings are generally for a particular food or drink. You might have a craving for, say chocolate, and not be physically hungry at all. Cravings can be brought on by emotions, associations, hormones, physical needs and memories. For example, if you always get the steak fries when you go hang out in Malibu, then when you go to Malibu, you might just crave the steak fries. That is an association/memory craving.

Cravings will pass if you resist them. It might take awhile, but they do subside. If you don't get those fries this time, and get interested in other things when you are in Malibu, then the craving will pass. It might come back, but resisting cravings is possible. Hunger, on the other hand, might pass momentarily but will come roaring back if your body needs fuel.

To be healthy, and at a good weight, it is important to pay attention to your level of hunger. If 0 is completely empty and starving and 10 is Thanksgiving dinner stuffed, it is good to eat when you are at a 2, 3 or even 4. Getting too hungry is a set up for a binge. It is also good to stop eating when you are at a 7 or 8. Eat until you are not hungry anymore, not until you are full. The Japanese call this Hara Hachi Bu. "Eat until you are 80 percent full."

Self awareness, and in particular, paying attention to what and why you eat, is key to conquering any weight or food addiction issues.

That's it for now. Good luck and let me know how you're doing.

For more by Irene Rubaum-Keller, click here.

For more on weight loss, click here.