Eating When You Are Not Hungry: It’s Called Appetite

The woman who came to see me for weight loss, let’s call her Ann, was about 40 pounds overweight and frustrated, in her words, by, “…a lifetime of weight loss followed by weight gain.” Her problem, she thought, was that when she felt hungry she liked to eat protein because it filled her up. But then she still wanted to eat carbohydrates even though she was full from the protein.

“Why do I feel hungry all the time?” she asked. “Or, more to the point, why do I want to eat when I am not sure that I am really hungry? All the diet plans I have gone on promise to take away my hunger, but I still want to eat.”

“Perhaps you are feeling two different kinds of hunger,” I ventured. “One might be actual hunger and the other, appetite.”

Feeling as if I was wading into the quicksand of definitions of hunger and appetite, I gingerly offered my own explanation. “Being hungry is natural, and it means your body is telling you that you need calories and nutrients. It is a signal, like thirst, indicating that your body needs you to take action. If you are thirsty, you drink water. If you are hungry, you eat. Now appetite, on the other hand, is what you feel when you are not hungry but want to eat.  Perhaps not a very scientific definition, but I think it works.”

I told her that it we often think appetite is hunger, perhaps because we are so rarely really hungry. Hunger is often accompanied by symptoms such as a headache, fatigue, feeling faint or weak (as in weak from hunger), nausea, irritability, and emptiness in the stomach.  Most of us do not approach that dire state before being able to feed ourselves. Conversely, we often, perhaps too often, decide that we are hungry, and need to eat for reasons unrelated to our body’s need for calories.

The difference between hunger driven by the body’s need to sustenance and hunger, aka appetite driven by perhaps emotional or situational needs, can be seen by looking at the eating behavior of an infant, a young child and an adult.

A hungry infant will cry when his or her body demands to be fed. Once fed, the baby often relaxes and falls asleep. But consider the toddler, sitting in a stroller and whining. Mom takes out a sandwich bag of breakfast cereal, often Cheerios, and the toddler spends the next fifteen minutes eating, a distraction from whatever caused the whining. Is the toddler hungry? No. But the toddler has an appetite for Cheerios.

Jump ahead a few decades. The adult misses breakfast and lunch is delayed because of work or other demands. It is three o’clock and she finds it hard to work because lack of food is causing a headache, a growling stomach, and fatigue. An ancient protein bar stuck in the drawer is detected and, even though it tastes like pressed sawdust, is gobbled down. Hunger is at partially sated, and she is able to go back to work.

Two days later, the same adult has consumed breakfast and lunch, and is busily working on a complicated but teeth-gnashing boring document. The adult is grumpy, impatient, and distracted. “I need to get something to eat,” she thinks and leaves the office to go to the lobby snack shop. After buying and gobbling a large chocolate chip cookie, she goes back to her office and is able to resume work. It is no less boring, but she can deal with it more easily. The cookie was eaten because of appetite.

There seems to be a bias against giving in to appetite. We are told not to eat between meals, after supper, or when we are stressed, bored, tired, angry, lonely, anxious, and/or depressed. And yet the impulse to do so is often as great as the need to eat when we experience hunger. Indeed, many of us may experience genuine hunger, the kind that makes even a stale piece of bread desirable, much less frequently than we experience appetite, the kind of hunger that make us debate over what we feel like eating for dinner.

Isn’t it appetite rather than hunger that makes us consider eating dessert? Isn’t it appetite rather than hunger that causes us to polish off all the French fries or continue to nibble at the edges of the apple pie after we have eaten a large piece? Isn’t it appetite that suddenly makes getting an ice cream imperative after we see someone else eating one? Or, when we go to a street fair and smell sausages and onions grilling, isn’t it our appetite that makes our mouth water even though five minutes earlier we were not hungry?

Weight-loss programs promise to curb or eliminate hunger. None mentions appetite. Some say that their program allows the dieter to eat what she wants, so if a brownie is desired rather than cottage cheese? That is fine. But the program guidelines do not distinguish between wanting the brownie out of hunger or out of appetite.

Ann and I analyzed her eating habits to see when she ate out of hunger and when out of appetite. She had the option of trying to eliminate her appetite-associated eating but decided it was unrealistic. She wanted her carbohydrate snack in the afternoon and the option of having another in the evening, even though she wasn’t hungry when she ate these snacks. “If I am going to lose weight and keep it off this time… I have to allow myself to eat the way I want, not the way some diet plan wants me to eat.” She continued to eat protein when she was hungry and allocated a certain number of calories for the carbohydrate foods her appetite urged her to eat.

“I guess I can have my cake, eat it,” she told me paraphrasing a well-known French queen, “and lose weight!”

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