Young children intuitively stop eating when they are full and don’t eat if they’re not hungry. Food choices are simplified. As you grow, our food choices become more complicated. Do you decide to eat something because you are physically hungry or because you are bored, are with friends who are eating or want to eat because you just saw a food advertisement?
Hunger is associated as physical symptoms from the body telling the brain to eat. Low blood sugar and the release of hormones from the digestive tract are signals sent to the brain to eat something.
Appetite on the other hand is the desire to eat from external cues. You may not be physically hungry, but you desire to eat something.
Appetite is a desire to eat something, not necessarily because your body needs energy. Appetite can be triggered by emotions, what you see or smell around us or what other people are eating around us.
Appetite is usually considered harder to control for most people as many things can influence it.
What influences hunger?
Hunger levels can be influenced by many things including fat free mass, hormone levels and blood sugar levels. Hunger is the body’s way of getting adequate energy for survival and for health. Weight fluctuations can affect hunger levels which can complicate weight loss efforts.
Resting metabolic rate and muscle mass
Resting metabolic rate is how many calories your body uses at rest when you are awake. Resting metabolic rate is one of the largest ways we use energy in the body and is influenced by fat free mass, or muscle mass.
A 2013 study (1) found that resting metabolic rate significantly impacted hunger. People with larger fat free mass levels had a significantly higher hunger levels compared to others who had lower fat free mass.
A 2012 article (2) also suggests a relationship between hunger and fat free mass levels, but not fat mass and body mass index. Therefore, as fat free mass goes up or down, hunger levels are likely to also go up or down respectively.
Blood sugar and hormone levels
Hormones sent from the digestive tract can send signals to the brain that communicate if the stomach is full or empty. These hormones have a direct role on hunger levels. Fat cells can also send signals to the brain to help regulate hunger levels.
If blood sugar levels dip down, this signals the brain that it’s time to eat. If blood sugar levels are normal or elevated, that can signal that it is not necessary to eat.
What influences appetite?
Appetite may be more complicated than hunger because so many things can influence the appetite.
Research studies have shown even subtle cues like food commercials, how big our plate is, what mood we’re in or how much other people are eating around us can influence what we eat despite if we are hungry or not.
What others eat around us
If you are trying to cut back your food intake, eating around others who are doing this as well could help you eat less.
A 2012 study (3) found participants ate less food when they ate with others who were instructed to restrict their food intake. Interestingly, participants also ate less at home after they had unknowingly eaten with people who were restricting their food intake.
The reverse can also be true: if others are eating large quantities of food, we are more likely to eat more as well.
How much food you put on your plate or bowl can influence how much you eat regardless of when you are truly full. Many people have been trained to finish all the food on their plate, regardless of how big it is.
If you eat off smaller plates or bowls, you will probably feel satisfied with a smaller quantity of food.
A 2012study (4) found young women ate more when they were given a larger portion size of food compared to a smaller portion of food. Researchers also found these women ate more when others around them ate more.
Food companies understand well that advertisements can have a big impact on food choices. Seeing a commercial or bill board can trigger desire to eat. Obese children can have a heightened alertness to food related cues (5).
Since exposure to food advertisements can promote consumption, this is one reason why limiting media or screen time for children may be beneficial.
If kids associate food advertisements as a drive to eat, this can increase likelihood of eating high calorie foods.
Emotions can have a strong influence over what you want to eat and appetite. Some people want to eat when they are bored, mad, sad, happy, etc. regardless of hunger levels.
These eating patterns can start when you are young and continue to be reinforced through adulthood.
Conclusion: Are you hungry or is it an environmental cue?
Hunger and appetite both drive you to eat. However, you can override any of these signals as well. Even if people are eating around us and you are not hungry, you can identify that and choose not to eat.
If you are hungry, you can override these signals if you are too busy to eat. Likewise, you can bypass the signals your body is sending when it is full and eat past the point of being full.
Pausing before you eat to see why you are eating can help identify if it is from appetite or hunger.
It’s not wrong to eat from appetite sometimes, but always eating from appetite instead of hunger may interfere with weight control.
Listening to your body can be helpful for adjusting to eat based on your body’s needs. This is hard in a fast pace lifestyle where people are encouraged to always multi-task to keep up with a busy lifestyle.
Try using appetite cues to your advantage. Eat with others who have similar health goals as you. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full instead of when your plate is clean. Eat off smaller plates.