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Hunger vs appetite: what's the difference?


When it comes to managing your food intake, hunger and appetite are two very different things. Hunger is the physical need for food whereas appetite is the desire for food. Hunger typically occurs with low levels of glucose in your blood, several hours after eating – it is a protective mechanism that ensures your body is adequately fuelled. Appetite is the conditioned response to food – it is a sensory reaction to the look or smell of food.

It is appetite that can lead to your eyes being bigger than your stomach.

Where does appetite come from?

Appetite is closely linked with our behaviour but also takes cues from our digestive tract, brain and fatty tissue. Appetite is influenced by the sensory reaction to food, so your appetite can increase or decrease depending on your taste preferences, what food is available to you, your health, and emotional state. Appetite can be increased or decreased by hormonal factors and stress.

There is a saying that it is best to eat until you are just full, or still a little bit hungry and there is some truth to this. Most people are “nourished” well beyond when their natural satiety signals kick in. In the hectic world we live in now many people eat when they are distracted or on the run and they have literally lost the ability to listen to intrinsic satiety signals.  

The brain receives signals from a number of different hormones that indicate when food is needed or not. These signals converge on dopamine-producing neurons in the hypothalamus of the brain. This changes dopamine output to the brain’s reward centre, which in turn controls motivation for food. Dopamine transmits reward signals and low levels of dopamine have been associated with over-eating.  

How do we regulate our appetite?

Regulation of appetite has been the subject of much debate over the last decade. The hypothalamus in the brain is the main regulatory organ for human appetite. Leptin, a hormone produced by our fat cells, provides a negative feedback loop to signal when we need to stop eating. However, the excessive and relentless production of insulin which occurs so often today, leads the body to become deaf to leptin, missing its appetite regulatory message. This then impacts thyroid function and alters metabolism detrimentally even further.  

Increased appetite has been linked with hormonal imbalance, mental disorders and of course stress. Self-regulation is ideal however many people can no longer differentiate between true satiety signals and psychological influences and of course hormonal imbalance will also influence appetite. Any woman who has experienced PMT knows how out of control sugar cravings can feel in the lead up to menstruation. 

Here are some specific strategies that can help you to manage your appetite and prevent you from overeating.


Mindfulness is an essential component of appetite management. So many of us eat at our desks, in our cars, as we’re walking and so on. Sit down and be present with your meal.

Slow down

Eat slowly and chew your food well; allow time for the digestive processes to work optimally. If you’re a food inhaler, try putting your knife and fork/spoon down in between bites. Allow time to reconnect with your feelings of satiety. So often we override this by finishing what is on our plate, talking or generally being distracted.

Consider your emotions

It’s also important to consider when you are connecting with food emotionally. Food is unfortunately often used as a comfort, yet it can’t actually do that. It can’t hug you or offer words of appreciation. Be mindful of when you eat emotionally, ask yourself the question, “what do I really want?” – the feeling you are seeking may be found in connecting with a friend or loved one, going for a walk or simply having some space to yourself. 

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