Control vs. Craving Foods: What’s the Difference?

When wellness coaching an individual, we always spend a session centered around hunger. It is important for everyone, even a registered dietitian, to understand the difference between hunger and being hungry. Hunger is a physical reaction to not having adequate food. Your body releases physical pain that comes from your stomach and there is a decline in chemical reactions occurring in your body. Blood sugar levels decrease, your body starts to lose muscle mass and stores more fat in fear of starvation. “Being hungry” is a result of maybe missing a meal or a snack, and is usually borne of boredom, depression or certain foods you eat that leave you wanting more.

Scientifically, a calorie is a calorie and being a healthy weight involves controlling your calorie intake and being physically active. There are some foods and some calories that affect individuals differently. There is not a one-size-fits-all calorie and there is not a one-size-fits-all food. Certain foods may have different effects on an individual’s food intake over the course of the day. I call these “craving” and “control” foods. These foods are very different for each individual and they go hand-in-hand with a person feeling hungry— not having hunger.

What are “control” foods?  These are foods that can calm your feelings of being hungry. Most commonly, “control” foods include foods with protein such as meat and dairy; foods that create volume such as non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, cucumbers, greens; and foods that are high in fiber such as legumes, nuts and seeds. When “control” foods are consumed with a balanced meal or snack and in the right portion size, an individual will experience more physical satiety resulting in the communication of fullness to the brain. Basically, a control food is “stopping” the individual from overeating or wanting more food. 

What are “craving” foods? These are foods that leave you wanting more. Common “craving” foods are simple carbohydrate foods that are low in fiber and protein such as desserts, candy, baked goods, soda (including diet), white bread and pastas, crackers, chips and juice. “Craving foods” are quickly digested and absorbed by the body, so our brain does not register the amount of food it has consumed and larger quantities of these foods can be eaten to satisfy the feeling of being hungry. But not all craving foods are unhealthy by definition. You might have a craving food that is full of fiber and protein. It is important to be aware that even a healthy food can be a food that causes you to overeat.

Get to know your control and craving foods. Keep a food journal for a week. Write down each food you consume and indicate how it makes you feel. This will help you identify foods that may be preventing you from living a healthy and happy life. I know my “control” and “craving” foods. It took time to figure out that certain foods lead me to eat more or eat less. I have also learned I can combine a control food with a craving food and find satisfaction with my feelings of being hungry. I also need to start my day with control foods to prevent me from wanting craving foods throughout the day. Not only do I eat less food, but I eat a higher quality of food and never have the feeling of being hungry. 

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Anne Cundiff
Anne Elizabeth Cundiff, RD, LD, FAND, is a retail dietitian in Iowa, author of "I’m a Registered Dietitian ... Now What?" and host of Conversations with Anne Elizabeth podcast. Read her blog, Nutritional Noshes, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram