Do you eat simply because food is there, or because you’re bored, or watching your favorite television show? You might not even be hungry, but you eat anyway. Eating because your appetite, not your stomach, is urging you can eventually lead to weight gain and high blood sugar levels. Learn the difference between appetite and hunger, and how you can use a simple tool to help control your eating.
Appetite vs. Hunger
Ever heard the expressions “a healthy appetite” or “your eyes are bigger than your stomach?” Appetite isn’t healthy if it leads to out-of-control eating. Appetite is basically the desire for food. It’s also a conditioned response to food: you see or smell a food that looks good and you end up eating it. Cravings are closely linked to appetite.
Hunger, on the other hand, is the physical need for food. If you haven’t eaten for a while, or if you blood sugar drops too low (hypoglycemia), you may start to feel shaky or lightheaded. Your stomach may start to rumble and you might even feel hunger pangs. These are signs and symptoms that you need to eat; once you eat something, your blood sugar levels go up and that growling stomach is silenced.
An easy way to remember the difference between the two is that appetite is a desire to eat, while hunger is a physical need.
There are several way to rein in your appetite:
- Distract yourself. If you’re eating because you’re bored, upset or stressed, do something to take your mind off food. Food isn’t going to solve the problem, and eating may end up making you feel worse later on. Come up with a list of activities (going for a walk, writing, cleaning the house) that you can do when those cravings kick in.
- If a craving hits, tell yourself that you can eat that food as long as you wait. Set a timer for 10 minutes and wait it out. While you’re waiting, keep yourself busy with work, a chore or calling a friend. You may find that after 10 minutes the craving has completely disappeared.
- Eat regular meals and snacks. Try to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same times each day. Doing so can curb cravings, squelch hunger and help even out blood sugars. Another helpful tip: aim to eat about every 4-5 hours; if your meals are far apart from each other, plan for a healthy protein snack, such as Greek-style yogurt and fresh fruit or whole grain crackers and peanut butter.
Another way to help you distinguish appetite from hunger is to use a tool called the Hunger Scale. Here’s how it works:
- Using a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “very hungry” and 10 being “very full,” rank your hunger before you eat a meal or decide to indulge your craving.
- Halfway through your eating episode, stop eating and rank your hunger again. If you’re at a “5” or above, put down the fork – or that cupcake – and stop eating. You’ve had enough.
- If you continue to eat, rate your hunger a final time when you’ve finished. If you’re stuffed, you kept eating long after you were full. Continue to use the Hunger Scale each time you eat to help you tune in to your level of hunger.
Talk with a mental health professional if you have difficulty controlling your appetite or find that you continue to eat from stress, anxiety or depression.