Home Healthy Eating Hunger or appetite? That’s the difference!

Hunger or appetite? That’s the difference!

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 386 views

A piece of cake in the afternoon, chips in front of the TV: We don’t just eat when we’re hungry. It is often appetite that drives up our calorie balance. Because apart from biological factors, it is upbringing, habits and various impulses that influence our diet. Read here how hunger and appetite differ and what you can do to counteract cravings.

What is the difference between hunger and appetite?

A tiny part of our diencephalon decides on hunger: the hypothalamus. This is where the central control unit of our entire organism is located – among other things, the hypothalamus receives reports as to whether the body is supplied with enough nutrients or there is a deficiency. Body weight regulation also takes place there.

The decision as to when and how much we eat is therefore made in our heads. Several brain regions, many biochemical mechanisms and hundreds of hormones work together to achieve this. They give the signals we know as hunger or appetite.

But what are hunger and appetite anyway? We explain it to you.


Hunger is an innate reflex important to our survival. It is a physical craving for food and protects against malnutrition. In order to stay alive, we need energy on a regular basis – including in the form of carbohydrates, fat and protein .

If our body has too little energy, the gastric mucosa and the pancreas produce the hormone ghrelin. It tells our brain that we need energy supplies. When you are hungry, your stomach often starts to growl.

When we eat something, ghrelin levels drop and the hormone leptin forms. It tells our brain that we are full.


Appetite originates in the limbic system and is an “emotional hunger”. There is a psychological stimulus behind this that makes us want to eat a certain food. Whether we get an appetite for something depends, among other things, on our childhood experiences, on cultural customs and on biorhythms.

In appetite there is no hunger in the physiological sense. The needs of body and soul are rather different in this case. That means: Even when we are full, we sometimes crave an ice cream or a piece of cake.

The reason for this is that food is not only for survival, but also has a psychological function for humans. Depending on how it is shaped, it distracts from negative experiences, for example, or helps to alleviate frustration. Self-reward is also related to appetite.

It is usually early childhood experiences or cultural factors that influence whether and what we have an appetite for. If sweets were used as a comfort or reward in childhood, there is a high probability that we will reach for gummy bears, chocolate, etc. in difficult situations in adulthood.

When it comes to eating, economic and social factors such as social status also play a role. In some countries, eating a lot is a sign of wealth. Food intake conveys pleasure, security or social status. Cultural customs also have an influence. It was shown that the appetite increases,

  • the more people eat together. That’s because conversations often distract people from how much they’ve eaten.
  • the bigger the plates are.
  • the longer someone sits at the table.

How to distinguish hunger from appetite!

In order to be able to clearly separate hunger and appetite, it is important to recognize why, when and what you eat. Only those who are able to interpret their body signals and recognize why they are consuming calories can control their appetite and thus avoid being overweight.

The following points tell you whether you are hungry or hungry:

  • Focus : If you have an appetite, you are usually interested in a certain food – for example an ice cream, a pizza or chips. Hunger, on the other hand, means that the stomach has to be filled – no matter what food.
  • Genesis : Appetite arises from the head, towards the mouth, towards the stomach. It literally makes your mouth water . Hunger works in the opposite direction. Usually the stomach growls first, the blood sugar level drops and this information is reported to the head.#
  • Development: While appetite often arises spontaneously and is usually persistent, hunger develops slowly and steadily. However, when the hormone glucagon increases blood sugar, hunger also disappears. Glucagon is the antagonist of insulin and plays a role in diabetes therapy in particular.
  • Trigger: Appetite arises in the head or is triggered by smells, noises and visual stimuli – regardless of the calorie requirement and degree of satiety. Hunger, on the other hand, depends on the needs of the person concerned and the body sensors that measure, among other things, how full the stomach is. When it comes to hunger, education or external stimuli play no role.
  • Encouragement: Smells, moods, feelings and the culinary offerings in the supermarket or in restaurants stimulate appetite. Shame or a guilty conscience often arise when people have eaten too much and inappropriately as a result. Hunger, on the other hand, is promoted by calorie consumption , time and growth (children and adolescents).
  • Duration: Saturation does not prevent appetite from developing. When you are hungry, you initially feel full for a while – usually for at least two to three hours.

How to control your appetite!

Over the past few decades, the oversupply of food in Western countries such as Germany or the USA has meant that more and more people are overweight. Many of them have forgotten how to listen to their natural feeling of satiety. One consequence of this is that type 2 diabetes in particular is increasing – including in children.

Curbing appetite is an important step in achieving body weight balance. Scientists speak of a network of psycho-biological interactions that have to take effect when controlling appetite.

This includes:

  • Become aware of why you reach for chocolate and the like and think about alternatives that you can use instead.
  • Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry and make a shopping list beforehand so that you walk through the aisles in a targeted manner.
  • Cook fresh and avoid convenience foods. The messenger substances in your body that are responsible for the balance between under and over nutrition get confused when you are confronted with flavors and aromas. This also applies to light products .
  • Eat mindfully. That means: carefully, slowly, chew extensively. This is the only way you will know in good time when you are full.
  • Fiber-containing foods such as oatmeal, legumes or whole grain products keep you full for a long time and only allow the blood sugar level to rise slowly. This prevents food cravings.
  • If you feel the urge to eat something sweet, grab fruit. Berries, for example, not only taste good, but also have a lot of vitamins.

This is what happens in the body when you eat!

When we eat something, the incoming food stretches the walls of the alimentary canal. Sensors in the gastrointestinal tract determine this and report the satiety stimulus directly to the brain. During the digestive process, several hormones are formed, which report saturation to the diencephalon via nerve tracts and the blood.

When the blood sugar level is high, the pancreas releases more of the hormone insulin – this also leads to saturation. In addition, insulin influences the hunger center by reducing the formation of hunger substances (e.g. neuropeptide Y) there.

In addition, a whole range of substances is known that are formed in the brain and that control hunger and satiety in the long term. These include substances that the body forms from the breakdown products of the ingested food, such as serotonin or dopamine.

The hormone leptin, which controls appetite, is also important. Depending on the fat content of the body, it is produced in higher or lower concentrations. Leptin ensures that there is no hunger at night – but only while a person is sleeping. Only then does the production of the hormone ghrelin come to a standstill. On the other hand, when we are awake, ghrelin is released and hunger arises.

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