Is It Hunger Or Appetite?

Knowing the difference may make a difference in your weight and health. The question is not so simple. The body’s finely tuned electrochemical communication for hunger and appetite is incredibly complicated as it is linked to the nervous, endocrine, and digestion systems and ultimately all body systems.

Hunger and appetite are interrelated with hunger defined as the body’s biological response to lack of food and appetite being the desire to eat. Surely, you’ve heard and experienced this piece of wisdom: “Never go to the grocery store on an empty stomach”, also known as when food fantasies overrule the grocery list. Suddenly the cart is full of items not on the list.

Your brain is busy coordinating hunger and appetite. The hypothalmus, because it gets signals from your digestive system that “fuel” is required, is prodding you to eat. You notice a gurgling stomach, shakiness, poor concentration, and irritability. You begin thinking about food and eating. As physical hunger kicks in, the cerebral cortex, the conscious, decision-making portion of the brain, is involved in prompting you about what to eat. If you are super hungry, you may exhibit less discretion about choices, like eating four slices of pizza instead of two. In this case, waiting to eat may not work in your calorie favor.

Appetite is tricky. You can have an appetite for something even if you aren’t hungry. We desire to feed our pleasure centers like when offered a juicy steak or a piece of apple pie. We can simply “out eat” the feeling of being satisfied because the taste is so good and so desirable. Nevertheless, recognizing the power of appetite over satisfying hunger is a step to watching calories.

Although seldom discussed, circadian rhythm plays a big role in hunger and appetite. Our own internal clock is finely tuned to the earth’s 24-hour clock cycle that balances between light and dark periods with our corresponding wake and sleep cycles. Research shows that if we disrupt the balance of eating by ignoring our circadian rhythm, we may struggle with weight gain and poor sleep.

Researchers at Northwestern University, Division of Endocrinology, found neurons in the hypothalmus that are “central command” for hunger. These neurons integrate a variety of signals before broadcasting hunger or satiation to the rest of the brain and are networked with our own physiologic clock. Understanding these networks potentially provides insight into how body weight is controlled and may provide a clue to explaining the rising rate of obesity and chronic disease.

Prior to waking, our bodies experience an upsurge in metabolic activity, meaning the first meal of the day is vital for energy expenditure and preparing the body for activity as well as how much we will eat later in the day. If we eat more heavily in the evening, metabolism is slower and may also affect how well we sleep at night. Skipping breakfast because we think: “I’m skipping a whole meal and saving calories” may be a set up for weight gain. When you finally do eat, hunger may drive you to eat more calories. Research shows making breakfast a priority helps manage calorie take later in the day, supports weight loss and weight maintenance.

The saying, attributed to Adelle Davis (1904-1974), a famous nutritionist and author, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” is spot on.


  • Plan a healthy breakfast covering at least one-third of your daily calories.
  • Eat slowly to allow satiety signals from your digestive system to reach your brain and register satisfaction from having eaten enough.
  • Practice “mindfulness” remembering it may be appetite that is driving you to eat extra calories. Mindfulness simply means consciously thinking about what and how much you are eating and when. Notice if you are eating for hunger or appetite.
  • If you aren’t getting good sleep, work on figuring out why. Sleep may be complicated by what and when you eat and stress.
  • Some medical conditions and medications may affect hunger and appetite. Work with a registered dietitian-nutritionist to develop an appetizing food plan.

Black Bean and Corn Salad

This recipe welcomes flexibility. Add other ingredients for variety. It’s quick, colorful and super healthy.

Salad: In a salad bowl combine 1 can of black beans (drained, rinsed) with 1-1/2 cups fresh corn (may use frozen or canned), 1-1/2 cups bite-sized tomato pieces or cherry tomatoes cut in half, 1/2 cup diced red onion.

Dressing: Combine 3 Tbsp. olive oil or canola oil with 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice (or red wine vinegar), 1 tsp. honey, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp. cumin

Toss salad with dressing 30 minutes before serving. Servings: 6

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.