Hunger, Appetite, and Cravings: How to Tell the Difference
We all know that gnawing feeling and rumbling in our stomach, which nudges us to grab a bite. But what exactly causes the gnawing feeling? How does the body know it is time to eat? Can you tell your body not to get hungry? Let’s explore and find some answers.
Why do we feel hungry?
Hunger is a natural sensation that stems from our survival instinct and compels us to eat food. Our body is designed to maintain a certain fuel level in the bloodstream. As the fuel in the body drops below this level, the stomach produces the hunger hormone, ghrelin. This tells the brain that it is time to eat, thereby increasing your appetite. The stomach starts secreting digestive acids and enzymes, causing that gnawing feeling.
Once you’ve eaten, the distended stomach signals the body to produce the fullness hormone, leptin. This tells your stomach to stop producing the ghrelin and gives your brain the feeling of satiety. Several other hormones, like insulin and cortisol, are also involved in hunger and satiety signals.
And what about the rumbling sounds you hear? The noise is nothing but air being pushed around by your intestines.
Cravings, hunger, and appetite
One can only be hungry when the body “needs” to eat. The “desire” to eat even when we are full, say a dessert at the end of a heavy meal, is what you call an appetite. Appetite can be a result of hunger, but often has other causes, such as psychological and environmental conditions. For example, feeling upset, bored, or even being around delicious-smelling food can increase appetite even when you are full.
Appetite can also be an acquired behavior. The desire to eat at routine meal times is often more from appetite than hunger. Cravings, on the other hand, are that “burning want” to have a specific food, like that biryani from your favorite restaurant.
What happens when you suppress hunger or overeat?
Most of us are guilty of skipping meals or giving in to cravings. And, we have experienced the unpleasant after-effects of not listening to our bodies. Suppressing hunger may cause hunger pangs, tiredness, and lightheadedness leading to loss of concentration and irritability. It also tells your body to conserve energy — slowing down your metabolism and storing more body fat.
On the other hand, overeating stretches the stomach beyond its normal size and pushes it against other organs, making you feel uncomfortable and sluggish. It may even cause heartburn. Habitual overeating can make you overweight or obese, increasing your chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. It also disrupts the delicate balance between hunger regulating hormones — ghrelin and leptin — which may trigger a perpetual cycle of overeating.
Also read: How to Eat Smart for a Healthy Heart
How to manage hunger and appetite?
The nutrients in your diet, your lifestyle choices, and your psychological condition all work together to enhance or suppress your “needs” and “wants” when it comes to eating.
Eat the right nutrients
1. Protein: Eat protein-rich foods — think meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, pulses, whole grains, and nuts. It will help get a greater feeling of fullness because they suppress the hunger hormones.
2. Fat: Fat is digested slowly and remains in the stomach for a long duration. So, even though eating fat may seem counterintuitive when you are trying to lose body fat, its hunger-suppressing effects will have long-term benefits in weight management. Fats like medium-chain triglycerides (found in coconut oil) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, tuna, flaxseeds, and chia seeds) are better at reducing appetite than other types of fat.
3. Fiber: Studies have shown that eating more fiber makes us feel fuller, by adding bulk to our diet and making the food stay in our stomachs for longer. Soluble fiber (found in fruits and beans) is more filling than insoluble fiber (found in vegetables and whole grains).
4. Carbohydrates: Refined carbohydrates (carbs) — like refined flour, bread, baked foods, and cola drinks — lack filling fiber, allowing your body to quickly digest and absorb them. Your blood sugar levels rapidly spike and your body pumps out a lot of insulin to regulate the high blood sugar level. This yo-yo of your blood sugar levels, along with the empty stomach, signal your body that it needs more food, prompting you to eat again an hour or so after having a meal. Replacing the refined carbs in your diet with complex carb foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits will increase your satiety for longer.
Plan your meals
Planning all your meals and snacks for the day will help you stay in control of your food choices and your appetite. Ghrelin is released in response to your usual mealtimes, so sticking to a schedule will ensure food reaches the stomach in time to meet the stomach acid released in response to ghrelin spikes. If you start thinking about food, it may be time for your next scheduled meal or snack, which means you can go ahead and eat. If not, then you’ll know how long you need to wait.
Get adequate sleep
Sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep leads to increased levels of ghrelin, making you feel hungrier throughout the day. A study published in a Nature journal showed that getting inadequate sleep for just one night may significantly increase appetite, chances of overeating, and cravings for unhealthy food. You may practice some simple breathing techniques before you sleep to improve sleep quality.
Reduce stress levels
Research has shown that stress increases appetite by increasing levels of hunger and the cravings-promoting hormone, cortisol. People who are under constant stress, tend to overeat and indulge in sugary foods regularly, increasing their risk for obesity and diabetes. Avoiding stressful situations and seeking emotional balance can help you in controlling your “want” to eat.
Learn the language of your body
Effective communication is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship, and this applies to the relationship you have with your body as well. Understanding your body’s signals of hunger and fullness can help you distinguish between hunger, appetite, and cravings — which will help you avoid overeating or indulging in emotional eating.
Practice mindful eating
Distracted eating reduces your awareness of what and how much you are eating, preventing you from recognizing your body’s fullness signals. It takes 20-30 minutes for your brain to get the message that your stomach is full and you should stop eating. Mindful eating gives your stomach time to signal your brain that you are comfortably full sooner.
To practice mindful eating, sit down in a comfortable environment to eat without any distractions. Be aware of each mouthful and eat slowly, appreciating the aromas, flavors, and texture of the food — involve all five senses in the act of eating.
Rate your hunger
Rating hunger and satiety levels before and after every meal can be an effective way to avoid skipping meals and overeating. You can use the following scale to rate your hunger and fullness.
0: Too hungry; experiencing hunger pangs, salivation, irritability, and lack of concentration
1: Hungry; stomach starts rumbling and the urge to eat becomes too strong to ignore
2: Mildly hungry; thoughts about food start to creep in and the body starts giving signals that it needs food
3: Satisfied; stomach feels full and the body starts signaling that it doesn’t need more food
4: Full; stomach feels stretched, indicating you ate too much
5: Stuffed; stomach starts to ache and you feel uncomfortable, heavy, tired, and bloated
To enjoy your food and eat comfortably, aim to have your meal when you are between 1-2 on this scale, and stop as soon as you reach point 3.
Keep your hydration levels up
Carrying a water bottle and sipping on it regularly will help keep up your hydration levels, so you will be less likely to confuse urgent cues to drink water with the need to eat. Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water every day and limit diuretic drinks, like coffee and alcohol, which can cause dehydration. Drinking two glasses (500ml) of water before a meal can also potentially make you consume fewer calories as water can be quite filling.
Exercise portion control
Serving small portions of food on your plate can help in controlling the amount you eat and may help you feel full sooner. For example, serve one roti at a time on your plate, finish it, and then take more. Serving everything in one go creates an obligation to finish food even when you feel full halfway. Eating food on smaller plates may also help you unconsciously reduce your meal portions without feeling deprived.
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