Hunger Cues: Needing food vs. Wanting food


Hunger vs. Appetite: Are you able to tell the difference?

You may not realize it (yet) but there is a very distinct difference between the two:

  • Hunger = physiological NEED for food. This is when our body sends physical cues like a growling stomach, low energy or, lack of focus/concentration.

  • Appetite = psychological WANT for food. This is triggered by the sights and smells of food like walking past your favorite bakery and smelling fresh-baked donuts! Regardless if you’re actually hungry, your appetite kicks in and you really want that donut. Emotions may also trigger appetite as well.

Why is it important to understand when you need food versus just wanting it?

We’ve all been here: Sitting on the couch, binging Netflix and mindlessly snacking:

Are you truly hungry or, are you just bored, not fully present and out of pure habit, snacking as you watch?

On the other hand: Have you ever been SO incredibly busy you lost track of time and forget to eat:

You start feeling sluggish, your head starts to hurt and your empty stomach is growling so loud everyone turns and stares!

When you take time to monitor your body’s cues (hunger vs. appetite), you develop better eating habits, a healthier relationship with food and understand how to eat for your goals and desired results

In today’s blog, you are leaning:

  • Daily habits sabotaging your “hunger” cues

  • 4 Tips to tell if you are truly hungry

  • What to do IF you eat when feeling bored, stressed or emotional

Bottom line: knowing the difference between actual hunger and just wanting to eat leads to the very BEST RESULTS!

Habits Sabotaging Hunger Cues

There are a number of different lifestyle factors impacting hunger and appetite. And, what you may not realize is how much these things impact how we respond and act when those cues kick in. Here are the three more common lifestyle factors that may be sabotaging your goals and sending you mixed signals:

  1. EXERCISE: If you increase your activity levels and amount of daily exercise, it is highly likely you will become hungrier. This is completely normal given your body is burning more calories because the more you burn, the more you will need to eat to fuel your body.

    However, the flipside of this equation is a term known as appetite entitlement. Appetite entitlement is the thought process that involves believing you have “earned” treats and indulgences because you exercised. This mentality can absolutely unravel hard work and progress.

    Along with halting progress, appetite entitlement also gives off the unhealthy mindset of needing to “earn” foods through exercise. Finding the right balance for your specific needs is key, and working with a nutrition coach is the perfect answer to this dilemma (*hint*hint*wink*wink*).

  2. SLEEP: Pay close attention to the days when your sleep is either poor or, non-existent. Lack of sleep can cause your cravings for sweets and simple carbohydrates to hit the roof, and there is very good explanation for why this happens.

    First, when you are tired, your willpower may be at an all-time low. Second, lack of sleep can disrupt hormones that help regulate hunger and satiety. When tired, your body starts looking for quick sources of energy in the form of sugary sweets like cookies and candy, energy drinks and soda to name a few.

  3. STRESS: As humans, we seek comfort in times of stress. What is a quick and easy way to comfort yourself? You guessed it – food! And not just any food but, yummy comfort foods in the form of decadent desserts or fat-laden meals. While it is OK to enjoy comfort foods on occasion, continually doing so on a regular basis can and will halt your progress. Remember, YOU CAN NOT OUTTRAIN A POOR DIET.

This is also the perfect time to bring up Mindful Eating. Mindful Eating is the practice of really taking the time to chew and enjoy your foods and meals. By doing so, you are allowing your body and brain the time to connect, catch up and recognize fullness cues. If you are a super fast eater or find you are constantly eating too much – to the point of being overly full and uncomfortable – mindful eating is a useful tactic to practice and apply. This will help slow you down and prevent overeating.

How Mindful Eating Works: Aim for making each meal last approximately 20 minutes. This will give you plenty of time to enjoy your food and begin to feel and experience satisfaction as opposed to fullness. First, start by timing your next meal to see how long it takes and then gradually add on more time from there. For example, perhaps your first timed meal only takes 10 minutes so at your next your next meal, set a timer for 12 minutes. From there, continue to increase your time until you are able to achieve the full 20 minutes or longer.

Four Ways to Tell If You Are Truly Hungry

If you’re feeling like you are blurring the lines between hunger vs. appetize and need help, here are four ways to distinguish the difference in everyday life:

  1. Check in with yourself and pay close attention to physical signs such as a growling stomach or low-energy. Both are good indicators of hunger. If you do not feel physical hunger and you just want a food item because you were triggered by a smell or image, that is your appetite talking to you, not your belly.

  2. If you are wanting to eat, ask yourself if you are willing to eat a balanced meal inclusive of a protein and vegetables or, are you craving something very specific because you experienced a sight or smell. Once again, appetite. If you are happy to eat protein and a big ol’ plate of veggies, it’s highly likely you are physically hungry and need to eat.

  3. Is there something else you need other than food? Perhaps you found out some stressful news and are looking for comfort. Would you find the same satisfaction you are looking for in the form of a hug or a friend lending an ear to listen? If it is comfort you are seeking, that is appetite.

  4. If you are still unsure after evaluating the above, give yourself 15-20 minutes and reassess. Perhaps you just need a distraction or to re-focus your thoughts. use that 15-20-minute window to take a walk, meditate, clear your mind or simply have a glass of water. When time is up, evaluate and check for hunger. If you are hungry, great! It is time to eat. If not, move on with your day.

So remember, the next time you go to reach for a snack, take the time to evaluate where you are in that moment. Pay attention to your mood, energy levels, food choices, and mindset before making a final decision.


Stay Fueled

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