The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management, a program of the Institute for Lifelong Weight Management – teaching you the skills you need to keep the weight off forever!
Do you know the difference between hunger (needing to eat) and appetite (wanting to eat)?
Many people have trouble figuring this out. It’s important at any time of the year – but especially so during this season of celebration, when tempting treats lie in wait everywhere we go! Learning how to tune into the physical signs that what you’re experiencing is actual biological hunger – versus a psychological desire to eat – can help you avoid eating when you’re not hungry. This, in turn, will help you maintain the healthy weight you’ve worked so hard to reach.
When your body is depleted and needs replenishment in the form of nutritious food, that’s when you’ll experience the physical signs of hunger. These include a feeling that your stomach is empty, or the sensation of your stomach growling or rumbling.
A hunger pang is in fact no more than a muscle contraction. When our stomach is full, these contractions send the food we eat through our digestive tract. On the other hand, if our stomach is empty the contractions just squeeze air, and that’s what makes the rumbling or growling noise. When we eat, our pancreas secretes insulin, a hormone that allows us to change the food we eat into glucose, the simple sugar that keeps our body functioning, and then to transport the glucose into our cells. A higher level of glucose temporarily turns off the sensation of hunger. Then, when the level of glucose circulating in the blood falls again, we may experience that feeling of emptiness, which signals us to eat again.
If we go on for too long without giving our body the nourishment that it needs, we may start to feel a headache coming on, or we might feel shaky or weak. These physical sensations are a result of low blood sugar levels and/or the release of hunger-indicating hormones. Hunger is an important biological response that ensures that our bodies get what they need to continue functioning reasonably well.
Appetite, on the other hand, is based on a psychological desire to eat. Our appetites can be stimulated and influenced (increased or decreased) by many different factors, including our sensory experience (the sight and smell of particular kinds of foods), our established eating habits or patterns, the weather, date or time of day, the social context in which we find ourselves (what other people are doing or eating at the time), and our emotions. Even our thoughts or memories can stimulate our appetites. For example, thinking about our favorite holiday season treats, or remembering a meal or a restaurant that we associate with a happy time or with a loved one can result in a desire to eat. An appetite or desire to eat can result in automatic physiological reactions including stomach contractions and salivation.
During this season of celebration (with all the stress and emotion that accompanies it), we’re particularly at risk for eating based on appetite versus hunger. When we do so, we’re likely to eat more than our bodies actually need (as well as eating foods that our bodies don’t actually have a biological need for), and as a result we gain weight. When we’re hungry, we may eat just one serving of potatoes. After that, our appetites may lead us to serve ourselves a second helping just because the first looked so appealing or tasted really good.
How to tell if you’re actually hungry (that your body has a need for nutrition):
Ask yourself these questions. If you answer “yes” to any of the first 6 questions, your body may not actually have a need for nutrition at that moment in time:
- Am I thirsty?
- Am I sad?
- Am I tired?
- Am I feeling bored?
- When was the last time I ate—was it less than three hours ago?
- Can I wait 15 minutes before I eat again? Until the next meal?
- Did my feeling of hunger come on gradually (versus suddenly)?
- Did I experience the physical sensations of hunger (as described above)?
- Can my hunger be temporarily reduced by drinking a glass of water?
- Is my hunger open to a range of options, in terms of what I could eat (versus feeling that I need to eat one specific food)?
- Did my feeling of hunger go away when my stomach was full?
- Did I feel neutral after eating (versus having feelings of guilt, shame, regret, or loss of control after eating)?
If you answered “yes” to the last 6 questions, your hunger was based on a true biological need for nutrition.
Before you eat, rate your hunger on a scale from 1 to 10. “Not hungry” is a 1, while “extremely hungry” is a 10. If you rate your hunger an 8, 9, or 10, it’s time to eat. Let your body figure out if it has received enough fuel to keep going. Wait 20 minutes after eating before taking a second helping of anything.
Use Mindful Maintenance strategies to avoid gaining weight over the holidays. Download my free report here.
With your continued health in mind,
Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for Lifelong Weight Management
Creator, The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management
The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh® is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.