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Are you really hungry?

Darko Botic

Difference between true hunger and high appetite

During the next 7-10 minutes, I’ll try to explain and portrait the essential difference between concepts of the true and a false hunger, in hopes that it could have similar positive and motivational impacts on you as it did on me and my weight-loss journey.


Shop for food after the meal

If I could start this article by providing guidance, I would probably advise you never to go shopping while being hungry. Even though this is something I consider logical and a common sense now, it wasn’t always like that.

When I was working shifts and living alone, coming home would usually be preceded by a quick visit to the nearby pastry shop or a supermarket. There was very little willpower to prepare and cook a proper meal, after the hard day’s work, so the quickest choice was most often my preference.

It was clear that I developed a horrible habit, one which needed to be broken. However, I learned the hard way that breaking habits usually work only temporary, until the first sign of a real stress. The way to successfully break it is to substitute it with a good habit.

To do that, I needed to figure out how does it come to my easy and comfortable solution. In other words, what is the trigger that makes me go for the quick, unhealthy choice of meal? As soon as I realized that hunger triggers the impulsive food choice after a hard day’s work, I started bringing a meal to work, which I would eat on a break closest to the end of my shift.

But despite feeling full, every time I would visit the food store on my way back home from work, even with a determined focus to buy a healthy meal based on lean meats and veggies, I would miserably fail as soon as I notice a jar of Nutella, or smell a favorite pastry dish, and get instantly hungry. Somehow, identifying a familiar smell made me hungry, even though I ate a sizeable meal just recently.

It was a much-needed experience that taught me a life-changing lesson. I became aware of my brain somehow dictating the urge to eat. So I started researching this ‘phenomenon’, or at least I considered it a one at the time.

Our appetite can often mislead us into a false sense of hunger, by feelings of wanting and craving for food, triggered by the environment, smells, or even images of palatable foods.

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True hunger or high appetite

First of all, we need to establish a differentiation between hunger being triggered by an emotion, and the emotions caused by hunger. The latter is a deep psychological issue that I’m not qualified to discuss since it doesn’t fall under my scope of practice or education. I will only mention that body being starved for a certain extent of time can be associated with a myriad of mental consequences such as despair, depression, anxiety, panic, etc., and can lead to a true emotional trauma.

The general opinion of the public is that hunger is a feeling of wanting, which usually manifests itself as the urge to eat, or a mental craving for a certain type of food. I would argue that this is basically a definition of ‘appetite’. Thinking of appetite as an indicator of false hunger could be the very first step toward recognizing the cue for redundant or mindless eating, which I consider to be the first big obstacle of individuals struggling with overweight.


“I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse”

Our appetite can often mislead us into a false sense of hunger, by feelings of wanting and craving for food, triggered by the environment, smells, or even images of palatable foods. It’s a psychological reaction that prompts excessive salivation after we grab a bite or two, just to satisfy our palates. What usually happens next is that our stomach starts contracting. In other words – stomach starts to rumble. As an example, I’ll cite the study from 2012. from the journal of Eating Behaviours by Coelho et al. [1], which suggests that pre-exposure to high-caloric foods, or foods that were not previously introduced, stimulates additional intake, while pre-exposure to low-caloric foods does not appear to arouse appetite.

What this essentially means, and what you can easily test on yourselves at any moment, is that tasting a food that you really enjoy, or highly palatable food that you haven’t had before, would psychologically encourage you to eat more by cuing the typical symptoms of hunger – more saliva and rumblings in the stomach.


The case of bubblegums and cigarettes

We could also argue that chewing a bubble gum could promote a feeling of hunger due to excessive salivation, which would prime our hormonal response to eating, similar to snacking or tasting a highly caloric appetizer before a meal. Most often, chewing a bubble gum before a meal could make us consume more energy. Some researchers [2] found that it could even impede consumption of healthier food during a meal, even though participants of the studies reported an acute suppression of hunger.

Many smokers I’ve encountered often complain about rapid weight gain after dropping the cigarettes. But on the other hand, non-smoker and occasional smoker will almost definitely experience an acute loss of appetite after one cigarette. The reason behind it, researchers say [3], is that tobacco smoke negatively affects ghrelin (more below) levels in saliva, which contributes to the dull taste of food, and can even contribute to the satiety after meals. However, there is no solid evidence on a long-term weight loss that could be caused by smoking [4], even though a weight gain might likely happen in a scenario where a chronic smoker substitutes one bad habit – smoking – with overeating. But this is in the essence only a random correlation. 


Being truly hungry

A proper hunger is something that we need to understand as a body’s physical reaction to the lack of nutrients essential for its normal functioning.

The difference between true hunger and appetite at a certain point becomes so drastic that these reactions clearly separate from each other, where hunger forces an intake of food that we find distasteful; in drastic scenarios even the food that we previously considered revolting or nauseating.

During 1912. researchers Cannon and Washburn from Laboratory of Physiology in the Harvard Medical School published an analysis in the American Journal of Physiology titled “An Explanation of Hunger” [5]. I consider their description of true, physical hunger still a valid one. ‘It’s a dull ache or a gnawing sensation in the lower chest and epigastric regions. It is the body’s first strong demand for nutrients, and, if not satisfied, it’s likely to grow into a highly uncomfortable pain.’ The pain from true hunger will become less and less localized, and gradually more intense.

So when we “feel hungry”, it’s likely just a case of our brains being cued to eating, either by senses, environment, habit, or emotional state. By a definition, emotion is a ‘complex psychophysiological experience of an individual’s state of mind as interacting with biochemical (internal) and environmental (external) influences’.

In most cases, the “feeling” part is only a reaction to our appetite not being satisfied as per usual. If we reflect on the aforementioned definition, emotion is a complex psychophysiological experience, while everyday “feeling of hunger” is generally caused only by either a high appetite or unbalanced and unregulated diet. Once again, I’ll point out that this information is valid only with the general public, individuals that don’t need a specialized medical, psychiatric or dietetic care.


Hormones affecting hunger

When speaking of hunger from the endocrine perspective, I would like to point out the prominent roles of Ghrelin and Leptin [6], hormones that control our hunger and satiety, and have a massive influence on energy balance.

Plainly and simply said, Ghrelin is a peptide hormone that stimulates our hunger.  It is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, and it functions as a neuropeptide in the central nervous system [7]. Basically, it is secreted when the stomach is empty, and it signals brain cells to increase gastric acid and GI movement, to prepare the body for intake of food. Ghrelin also stimulates the desire for intake of food, and it also has a role in the enhancement of taste since it’s secreted in saliva as well.

Leptin is a protein hormone produced in adipose tissue (body fat) and it regulates fat stored in the body. Unlike Ghrelin, which is a fast-acting hormone, Leptin regulates energy balance on a long-term basis by suppressing food intake, thus contributing to the process of weight-loss. Which is why we generally refer to Leptin as a “satiety hormone”. Its receptors are found in the same brain cells as for Ghrelin [8].

I sincerely believe that understanding how hormones affect the hunger, at least casually, could help you figure out the difference between the true and environmentally or emotionally triggered hunger.

“Two days’ hunger made a fine sauce for anything.”

― Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World

Although I’m pulling a quote out of a fantasy novel, I find these words far from fiction. Am I not suggesting starvation, not by any stretch of the imagination, however, anyone who experienced true hunger, either through purposeful fasting or unfortunate event, will probably agree with it. I can only hope that this article gave you the one thing I was aiming at – a certain perspective. And if this perspective makes you doubt your first sign of hunger, and gets you to start noticing a difference between the true and a false hunger, I will consider my job here being well done.


Guiding you by care, accountability, and personal communication

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