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How Does Appetite Work? 4 Key Things to Know

“That wasn’t really what I wanted.”

Have you ever had that thought after finishing a meal? Most of us have, and it says a lot about the difference between appetite and hunger — and there is a difference.

“Hunger is our bodies’ physical need for fuel,” says Melissa Perry, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “It’s a biological process where our gut says: ‘I need food for fuel and I don’t care what that food is.’

“Appetite, on the other hand, is bigger. It encompasses your desire to eat. We have such a diet-minded culture that many of us have lost our sense of what a healthy appetite feels like. Yes, meals should give our bodies fuel — but they should also taste good in order to satisfy us psychologically. Paying attention to what we’re eating and taking the time to enjoy it is important.”

Here are 4 key tips for understanding your appetite:

1. Let your body tell you when to eat breakfast.

Our appetites are regulated by an intricate system of hormones that rise and fall over every 24-hour period. The hunger hormone, ghrelin, is usually at its highest within 2-3 hours of waking, but everyone’s appetite is different.

“The most important thing is to be in tune with your body,” says Perry. “If you hop out of bed hungry, eat then. If you find that you’re having to force yourself to eat right when you wake up, try waiting a few hours and eating once you get to work. The important thing is to get fuel into your body early in the day to get your muscles and brain moving. And remember that coffee and other caffeinated drinks can be an appetite suppressant, so plan your morning accordingly.”

Studies have shown that people who eat the same caloric intake but shift more calories toward a healthy breakfast have steadier blood sugar and energy levels throughout the day and tend not to overeat.

2. Eat based on hunger and don’t skip meals.

Everyone’s heard the myth about not eating after 8 p.m., but the truth is your body doesn’t clock out, and it knows best when it needs fuel.

“I think the diet rule of not eating after some specific time came from us trying to curb mindless eating, and that’s a good goal,” says Perry. “But your body still needs fuel, and if you find yourself feeling hungry, don’t deny those feelings.”

One thing that can help regulate your appetite is to stay on a steady eating schedule.

“If people consistently skip meals, their hormones are on a rollercoaster, and that can cause extreme hunger or overeating,” says Perry. “Eat consistently throughout the day and pay attention to those hunger cues. Some people may need to have a snack before they feel hungry because they know they’ll be busy in an hour when they’re actually hungry, and that’s okay. Listen to your body and find what works for you.”

3. Snack on protein and fiber.

Whatever time of the day you find yourself hungry, look for snacks with substance.

“Foods with fiber and protein are going to keep you fuller longer while foods high in sugar or saturated fats will burn off quickly,” says Perry. “My go-to is always an apple and peanut butter because it’s not too bulky but it has enough protein and fiber to hold me over.”

4. Pay attention to fullness signals and learn to eat mindfully.

“The biggest issue we see today is that people have learned to ignore what fullness feels like,” says Perry. “Whether it’s because we’ve dieted for so long or we grew up as members of the ‘Clean Plate Club,’ we’ve gotten away from letting our bodies tell us when we’re satisfied. We also have a tendency to eat for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger.”

The most common:

  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Boredom
  • Procrastination

“I’ve counseled a lot of people who will eat out of avoidance of something else. Typically that’s when we reach for sugary, high-fat foods because we’re eating emotionally, and there’s a scientific reason for that,” Perry says. “Sugary foods give us a dopamine rush, meaning they literally make us feel good because they give us immediate gratification. The problem is that rush quickly wears off, and if we’re using food as a distraction, eating won’t resolve our problems or make stress go away. It’s important to ask yourself what’s really going on in a judgment-free way so you can address it and move on.”

Try these 3 tips to get more in tune with your appetite:

  1. Slow down. It takes anywhere from 15-20 minutes for the body to register that food has entered the stomach, so eat slowly, drink water, and don’t go back for seconds until you’ve given yourself time to feel full.
  2. Release your stress. If you recognize you’re eating out of boredom, sadness or stress, take a 5-minute walk, pray, meditate or call a friend — whatever healthy stress release looks like for you.
  3. Remove distractions. Stop eating in front of the TV or while scrolling through your phone. Being mindful of what you’re eating and giving it attention will make your meal more satisfying. To learn more about eating mindfully, click here

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Food & Recipes


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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