Hunger Vs. Appetite: Knowing the Difference Will Help Your Fitness Goals

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What’s the difference between feeling hungry and having an appetite? We often use these phrases interchangeably to indicate that we want something to eat. However, there’s actually a difference between hunger and appetite that many don’t realize. 

Simply put, hunger refers to the physical need to eat, while appetite indicates a psychological desire to consume food. These may seem like small nuances, but for those who want to lose weight or work toward a certain fitness goal, getting in touch with your body to understand the differences can help you reach your desired weight or physique more easily.

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between hunger and appetite – what they mean, cues to look out for and how to strategically respond in order to reach your personal health and fitness goals. 

What Is the Difference Between Hunger and Appetite?

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Whether you’re working toward a fitness goal or want to understand your eating patterns better, understanding the difference between hunger and appetite can be a big help. Here’s how hunger and appetite are defined and how they differ.

Hunger is defined as the need to eat. Hunger is an instinctive reaction to your body’s need for food. These physical indicators can include a grumbling stomach or even fatigue if a person goes too long without eating. A lack of focus and energy can also be signs of hunger. This is due to a person’s blood sugar levels dropping too low when they’ve gone too long without eating.

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Appetite is defined as the desire to eat. Unlike hunger, your appetite is triggered by external cues rather than the physical need to eat. However, appetite also manifests physically. For example, say you finished eating lunch just an hour ago. You walk into your office kitchen and see a plate of fresh doughnuts set out for grabs. Seeing these delicious doughnuts and smelling their sweet scents may make your mouth water and give you the feeling that you’d like to eat one at that moment. This is different than hunger in that you don’t physically need to eat that doughnut, but your body and mind desire it due to the sight and smell of it. 

Factors That Impact Appetite

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As explained above, appetite is brought on by external factors that motivate our desire to eat. In addition to visual and sensory stimuli (ex: seeing and smelling a delicious pastry), a few other factors can increase appetite.

Poor sleep habits. Have you ever found yourself craving sweet treats after a restless night’s sleep? There’s science behind why we gravitate to sugary foods more often when running on less than optimal sleep. When we lack energy, our body looks for quick ways to boost energy. Sugary treats like cookies, soda or candy provide that fast burst of energy – but leave us crashing after that spike in blood sugar has ended. 

RELATED: How Do SMART Goals Help With Weight Loss?

Exercise. Depending on how rigorous your fitness training is, exercise can increase hunger due to the additional calories being burned each day. However, the appetite may also climb when starting a new workout regimen due to what’s known as “appetite entitlement.” When we dedicate time and effort to working out, we feel like we’re owed a reward in the form of food. Since we’ve burned it off through exercise, we reason that having a few cookies or sweet treats as a reward won’t harm our progress. This isn’t true and can end up sabotaging fitness goals if not kept in check.

Stress. You may have heard of “stress eating,” which refers to turning to food when we’re under pressure. It’s true that appetite increases during stress, as many people self-soothe by turning to high-calorie “comfort food” as a response. Though this may feel good at the moment, stress eating as a response to appetite will not only cause productivity to crash after spiking your blood sugar but will make achieving fitness goals difficult.

How to Know When You’re Hungry

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If you’re having difficulty identifying whether you’re hungry or have an appetite, here are a few steps to follow to determine what you’re feeling.

Evaluate your physical symptoms. Take a moment to identify how you’re physically feeling. Factor in the last time you ate and whether or not this was a balanced meal. Are your energy levels low? Does your stomach feel physically empty? These are strong indicators that what you’re feeling is hunger vs. appetite.

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Identify your motivation for eating. What happened right before your desire to eat? Did you see or smell something desirable? Did you have a stressful meeting and learn of a new deadline you have to hit? Keeping track of things that trigger your desire to eat can help you work through them to determine whether you’re hungry or have an appetite. 

Take a break. Before reaching for something to eat, take a moment to remove yourself from the current situation for around 15-20 minutes. Drink some water, take a walk and occupy your mind with something other than what you were doing when the desire to eat hit. If you still have physical hunger symptoms, it’s a strong indicator you are, in fact, hungry rather than being influenced to eat by other factors. 

Tips for Curbing Your Appetite

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Being mindful of your motivations behind eating is one way to discern between hunger and appetite. Another way to keep your appetite under control is to work toward cultivating eating habits that help you feel full and satisfied. Here are a few tips to try. 

Eat nutrient-dense foods

Making a conscious effort to incorporate healthy foods that keep you feeling satiated for longer is another way to keep your appetite in check. Whole grains, high-fiber fruits and vegetables and lean protein will keep energy levels stable and help fuel your body properly throughout the day.

RELATED: 9 Foods to Improve Your Mood and Cognitive Functioning

Focus on satiety

Knowing when we’re full is just as important as identifying when we’re hungry. One way to work toward achieving this is to eat slowly and mindfully during each meal. Doing so allows us to feel the physical cues of satiety that leave us feeling nourished and satisfied without feeling too full. 


fridge full of greens
(Photo by Ello on Unsplash)

Understanding the difference between hunger and appetite can be difficult at first. It may take some practice to identify your body’s motivation for eating. Knowing the difference between hunger and appetite will not only become easier over time but can be the key to start working toward a healthier, more active lifestyle.

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