Health & Wellness

Determining the difference between hunger and appetite

Are you reallly hungry, or just in the mood to raid the refrigerator? Photo: Andrey Popov

As a nutritionist and health coach, one of the most common questions I am asked is the difference between hunger and appetite. It is important to know they are two very different things. Understanding that difference can help you notice your eating habits so you can become healthier in 2019.


Hunger is a physical sensation to eat — your stomach growls, you get hunger pangs, it is a physical drive to eat. If you are truly hungry, any food you eat will cure hunger.

Appetite is often psychological. If you crave a specific food type, and only that specific food will satisfy your craving, that is appetite. For example, we have all experienced wanting something sweet after dinner, even though we aren’t hungry because we just ate a meal. We don’t need the sweets; however, we want the dessert. That is appetite.

Appetite occurs for a number of reasons. Eating in response to emotions rather than physical hunger results in cravings for comfort foods, which are usually caloric, sweet, salty, and fatty. Cravings come from something other than hunger, and can be associated with sadness, fear, anxiety, avoidance, trauma, boredom, nostalgia, rewards, negative thinking, or happiness.

So the next time you get a craving, stop and ask yourself why you want this particular food, and try to get to the root cause of your craving.


Eating is necessary for survival, but it is also social — try to think of a social situation that doesn’t involve food. Emotional attachment to food can be traced to when we were babies — we cried and we were soothed with mother’s milk. Getting food as a reward creates an emotional connection to food, either positive or negative. We all have an emotional connection to food that has nothing to do with true hunger.

You can recognize emotional eating by using a food journal. For one week, record everything you eat along with your emotions when eating. Put the journal away for one week, retrieve it, then reflect on your eating and feelings to determine any patterns. I had a client who ate ice cream alone at night. After discussing her food journal and recognizing her pattern, I asked if anything had changed in her life, and learned her partner had moved out. She was eating ice cream to comfort herself — engaging in emotional eating because she was lonely. 

Here are a few tips to prevent emotional eating. If you are craving a specific food, take a walk, try deep breathing or meditation, or eat something healthful to keep yourself from indulging. Also, make sure you are getting enough sleep. A lack of sleep can increase your appetite by almost 25 percent.


Most people feel hungry at specific times each day. If you usually eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you would expect to experience physical hunger during these times. Your stomach may growl and you have a strong desire to eat. If you get hungry in between meals, make sure you are not just thirsty. Dehydration often feels like hunger, so if you are hungry at times that are not traditional meal times for you, try drinking some water.

As you eat, be sure to eat slowly and mindfully, tasting and thoroughly chewing each bite. It takes 20 minutes to feel full because the hormonal signals that you ate need to be generated and reach your brain so you stop eating when you are full. If you eat too fast, you eat past this signal and when the hormones catch up to your brain, you are left feeling overfull and bloated. Use a hunger scale from 0–4 to determine if you are really hungry:

0: You are hangry, irritable, and may need to lie down.

1: You need to eat, you have physical hunger, your stomach is growling.

2: You are 100 percent satisfied, you are “good.”

3: You are a bit too good, you are starting to feel uncomfortable, and you shouldn’t have had that last bite.

4: You are stuffed, tired, bloated, and you need to unbutton your pants.

I hope you will be able to use all of these tools to help you determine if you are truly hungry or if your appetite is in the driver’s seat. By being aware of your hunger and appetite, you will feel more in control and be able to make mindful decisions about your eating in the new year.  

Catherine Benton is a nutritionist and life coach who lives in San Francisco. She is the co-founder and co-owner of Personalized Nutrition Solutions.
Email: [email protected].

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