Hunger and appetite are often used interchangeably, but in reality, there is a difference. By understanding hunger vs. appetite, you can start to tune into your hunger and fullness cues.

Tapping into these cues, which are often confused by external factors like food advertising and diet culture, can help you block out the noise, get in touch with your body, eat when you are hungry, and stop when satisfied.

What Is Hunger, Really? 

girl, Orchard, girl eating apple, apple
Alex Frank

Hunger is the body's physiological need for food, and is the body's way of telling you that you need to eat. When blood glucose levels drop below a certain level and your stomach is empty, a hormone called ghrelin is released by cells in your GI tract.

Ghrelin sends messages to your brain to increase gastric acid secretion and GI motility to get your body ready to feed. Aka, it starts to make you hungry.

cream, bread, sweet
Christin Urso

Ghrelin also plays a role in reward perception in the brain. Because we need to eat to survive, to maintain this homeostatic need, humans have evolved to make eating pleasurable. This may be why so many of us love to eat.

Ghrelin release stops when the stomach stretches (when it is filled with food) and tells your brain that you're no longer hungry.

breakfast, Gluten Free, oats, spoon, Bowl, cherrios, cornflakes, oatmeal cereal, sweet, wheat, milk, corn, cereal
Caroline Ingalls

Again, hunger is all about maintaining homeostasis and giving your body fuel to maintain bodily functions like thinking, digesting food, and breathing (yup, those burn calories), but also to live your best life and carry out activities like walking, talking on the phone, browsing social media, and exercising.

Now, Technically, What's Your Appetite? 

candy, chocolate cookie, pastry, cake, sweet, goody, chocolate, cookie
Scott Harrington

Appetite is the desire to eat as a result of external cues, and not necessarily due to a psychological need to eat. Seeing, smelling, or thinking about food can be a cause of developing an appetite. 

You may have experienced an increase in appetite after smelling warm cookies in the oven, or while being around your favorite snack foods even after you have eaten a meal and are satiated. 

pizza, strawberry
Ellen Gibbs

Expecting food at certain times out of routine can also lead to developing an appetite in anticipation of eating. For example, if you eat meals and snacks on a routine, you may learn to anticipate them, and develop an appetite as a response.

Appetite can also be decreased due to external factors like stress, even if physiological hunger is present.

Cliff's Notes of Hunger vs. Appetite

carb, eating, salad, pasta, penne, vegetable, sauce
Caroline Ingalls

The major difference between hunger and appetite is the psychological drive for food to maintain homeostasis. Hunger is a biological need to eat. Appetite is a desire created by your environment.

How to Determine The Difference

bread, waffle, cheese
Alex Frank

One way to figure out if you are hungry or just have an appetite for food is to consider if you would eat a food you don't feel excited about.

Usually, if you are hungry, you experience factors other than thinking about food, like hunger pangs, grumbling stomachs, light-headness, and for some, low energy, difficulty concentrating, malaise, or nausea.  

candy, nut, peanut, chocolate
Christin Urso

Also, hanger is a real thing. When your blood glucose gets too low, your brain, which is reliant on glucose, will begin to release hormones that tell your body to eat. If your body doesn't get the food it needs, you may experience irritability, anger, or impatience.

If you catch yourself overreacting to things you'd normally be chill about and realize you haven't eaten in a few hours, it may be a sign you are hangry and need a bite to eat ASAP.

But It's Not All Black and White

berries, smoothie, acai, smoothie bowls, girls smiling, tea, coffee
Julia Gilman

It's also important to note that sometimes it is more than okay to eat because you have an appetite, even if you aren't necessarily experiencing hunger.

Enjoying a warm cookie or enticing and fragrant treat may do wonders for your mental health, be part of a social or cultural experience, and/or bring you a great deal of pleasure, regardless of your hunger level.

blackberry, bilberry, sweet, blueberry, pasture, berry
Jocelyn Hsu

Part of having a healthy relationship with food is acknowledging that pleasure and experience are important elements of eating, and that eating can and should be more than just fueling your body for mechanical reasons.

Hunger isn't something you should try to control or suppress. Remember that adequate fuel is essential to function and feel your best, so if you are feeling hungry, eat and never feel guilty about it!

cauliflower, kale, vegetable, cabbage, broccoli
Kristine Mahan

In a food and diet obsessed culture, it's easy to lose touch with hunger and fullness cues. Awareness of hunger versus appetite can help you restore these cues and feed your body when it needs to eat, feed your brain when it needs a treat, and live your best life.