Appetite is a desire for food. It stems from anticipating of the pleasure that will be experienced from indulging that appetite.
Hunger is a feeling of emptiness or state of weakness induced by lack of food. It is brought into being because of low blood sugar levels.
In simple terms appetite lives in our imagination within the brain whereas hunger comes from the body.
Hunger is our body’s signal to us that it is time to consume more fuel in the form of carbohydrates, protein and fat. In other words it’s time to eat.
One noteworthy exception; it is not uncommon to confuse the signal to eat with the signal to drink. To many people hunger and thirst feel very similar.
When you feel hungry it is worth double-checking that feeling and, perhaps, delaying acting on it until you’ve had a drink of water first. If the hunger is still there shortly afterwards then you need to eat.
So hunger is a simple biological mechanism for prompting us to keep well fuelled.
Appetite is a more complex signal but is actually easier to deal with. Appetite, in this context, comes from imagining what it would be like to eat or drink something and experiencing the chemical reward.
The stimulus for an increased appetite can come from many sources. It is often visual – we see something and want it, no matter whether we are hungry.
Why do you suppose restaurants wheel a trolley of cakes and puddings over to your table for you to choose? They don’t do that for the starters or entrees. The answer is simple; they want you to see the food to stimulate your appetite because they know you are no longer hungry. After all, you’ve just eaten a large meal.
Associated with seeing attractive food is the act of seeing someone else eating. This can also stimulate appetite. Think of strolling through the park and seeing someone eating an ice cream. Suddenly you want one too. But you’re not any hungrier now than you were a few seconds ago.
The smell of food also acts as a powerful driver for desire. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of supermarkets pumping particular smells into their stores so that we will buy more than we intended. Nowadays they are just as likely to have a working bakery filling the air with the smell of fresh baked bread.
There are even vegetarians who will happily admit that the smell of bacon on the grill makes them walk to the kitchen.
There are many other appetite drivers including:
colour - why are so many fast food outlets red, orange or yellow?
emotions – are you one of the many that craves chocolate when feeling low? Emotions can be a very powerful, almost irresistible, force in driving eating habits by stimulating your appetite.
alcohol – why stop off for fast food after a night out?
habit – it’s 12.30pm so it must be lunch time
medication – some prescribed and over the counter treatments stimulate appetite (and some other suppress it)
curiosity – people tend to eat more and go back more often at self serve buffets when there is a larger variety of food choices
How does this help me make healthy eating choices?
Hunger and appetite are both natural and healthy prompts for us to eat and drink. But hunger knows its limits while appetite can persuade us to over indulge ourselves.
Without hunger underpinning it appetite is just a temporary urge to act. That means it will diminish or go away completely when the stimulus is recognised for what it is; a brief feeling not a physical need.
The important lesson we can take from this is to recognise why we are eating or drinking. Give yourself a moment before tucking in to figure out why you are eating and how you came to choose that particular food type. Maybe you always pick up a chocolate chip cookie at the serving counter in the coffee shop simply because you can smell hot chocolate drinks all around you.
Do yourself a favour and make a habit of that simple thought process.
Gaining that understanding of the subconscious decisions you are making is very helpful. It will eventually allow you to pull some of those choices into the conscious and proactive world. Then you can really make healthy eating choices.