Chat with us, powered by LiveChat
Merch Shop

Hunger vs Appetite vs Cravings

Are you hungry or are you triggered?

Hunger vs Appetite vs Cravings

It happens to the best of us.

You planned your schedule to perfection. There is a lot you need to accomplish today, and you are going to knock it all out. Your day begins with a workout, you get ready, get the kids off to school, arrive at the office/gym ten minutes early with a “can do” attitude…it’s going to be a great day!

And it is…until it’s not.

Life loves to throw us curveballs and, on those days, your perfect plan is ripped to shreds. You survive…but you are TRIGGERED.

It’s now 9:30pm, and the kids are in bed. You are worn out from the day, stressed out because you didn’t accomplish anything you needed to, and add a dash of anger from whatever caused the chaos to begin with and that’s when it hits you. It’s a slight creeping sensation at first. Subtle, but noticeable. However, once you notice it, all bets are off.

Craving: “an intense, urgent or abnormal desire or longing” for “fill in the blank”. In my case it’s cupcakes. Pick your poison. We all have one (or more, Donuts and frosted sugar cookies are up there for me too).

Achieving your fitness goals, whether it be fat loss, muscle gain, a new PR, crushing a time trial, etc. all rely heavily on nutrition, but there is more to it than that. How we think about food, respond to hunger, and recognize eating cues, plays a role in achieving our goals.

Understanding the difference between hunger, appetite, and cravings will set us up for success, even when the triggers occur.

Let’s start with hunger. Hunger is physiological. We need food to live. Have you ever heard of the 3-3-3 Rule? 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food, and without any of these things we will eventually perish.

Therefore, hunger serves a purpose. By definition, “hunger” is "the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food." It occurs because of biological changes throughout the body, which signal that you need to eat to maintain energy levels. Over a period of time, your body will produce signals that start with stomach growling and can develop into headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc.

The problem is, that we are very capable of eating outside of the “hunger zone.” The following scale projects the extremes of “binge eating full” to “ravenous”.

Hunger Level

Sensations and Symptoms


Ravenous - weak, dizzy, nauseous, physically ill


Extremely hungry - cranky, low energy, a lot of stomach growling


Hungry - stomach is growling a little, need energy


“I could eat” - starting to feel a little hungry


Neutral - neither hungry nor full


Satisfied - A little full, pleasantly full, but could eat more


Full - A little uncomfortable


Very Full - Feeling stuffed


“Thanksgiving Day Full” - very uncomfortable, stomach hurts


Painfully full - you feel sick and will most likely get sick

It’s best to eat when your hunger level is at a 3 or 4 and it's best to stop eating at level 6 before you feel uncomfortably full (7-10).

Hunger is a need, whereas appetite is a “desire”.

Appetite is a conditioning response to food. It is a sensory reaction, to the thought, look, or smell of food. You could be watching a commercial on TV about food and now you want to eat.

Appetite can also be both increased or decreased by hormonal factors and stress. Your appetite can decline if you are sick or stressed. The phrase “I have no appetite” is commonly used in the scenarios.

Stress can make your appetite react the opposite way and have you gorging on everything in the kitchen until you are “Thanksgiving full” even though you are no longer experiencing hunger and have far surpassed the point of fullness.





In the body

In the brain

Cannot be ignored

Can be ignored

Will cause physical discomfort and pain

Doesn’t cause physical discomfort and pain

Generally satisfied by any food that provides energy (calories).

Only satisfied by specific foods that may provoke emotions and thoughts afterwards (pleasure, guilt, shame, etc.)

Diminishes after eating

May persist after eating



No trigger


Which brings us back to cravings. Cravings are very different than hunger, yet somewhat like appetite. A craving is the desire to eat a specific food. Cravings increase your appetite and can occur regardless of whether you are hungry. Cravings are usually triggered by emotions such as stress, sadness, loneliness, boredom, etc.

Cravings are normal, and the foods you crave do have a place within a well-balanced diet. With that being said, constantly giving into your cravings or confusing them with hunger, will lead to failure to achieve your health and fitness goals.

Therefore, when you are experiencing a craving, or feel like you have a “big appetite” in the moment, check in with yourself.

Am I actually hungry? Am I stressed? Did I see my friend post cupcakes on Facebook and now I can’t stop thinking about one? Am I bored?

Honestly, if you have to ask these questions in the first place, that alone is most likely a huge red flag you aren’t hungry.

So, you recognize you are experiencing a craving. Now what?

There have been a few studies done offering techniques that lead to positive results.

Richard Weil, director of the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City reported, “engaging the motor cortex to create movement makes the task more complicated and so it requires more work in the brain, and thus, more distraction.”

Apparently, the most effective movement was “forehead tapping, followed by foot tapping,” for 30 seconds.

Now, I know you shouldn’t knock it before you try it, but I can just picture myself having a craving and now I’m twitching.


But hey, this technique might work for you, so give it a try!

Another study performed by Brown University used cognitive strategies to diminish participants' desire for their cravings. The participants focused on the following thoughts for a minute at a time:

  • Get distracted by thinking about something other than food.
  • Accept and allow their thoughts as something they didn’t need to act on.
  • Focus on the negative long-term consequences of eating those goodies.
  • Think about the immediate rewards of indulging.

The most effective point was how they would pay for eating their favorite foods later.

“This strategy evoked increased responses in regions of the brain involved in inhibitory control, which may suggest a mechanism through which thinking about long-term negative outcomes could serve to reduce cravings,” says study author Kathryn Demos, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Miriam Hospital at Brown University.

Dad, (AKA Dr. Bell) has his own unique technique for curbing cravings. When he has a particular intense craving for chocolate, (his Kryptonite), he drinks a glass of OJ and will wait 30 minutes. If after 30 minutes, he still can’t shake the urge, he goes for it. It usually works for him.

For me, drinking OJ isn’t going to make a difference, but it might for you! Give it a shot.

For the good and the bad, I have an all or nothing personality with everything I do. My strategy against cravings is two steps.

Step One: cupcakes and cookies are banished from the house until it’s the “set time” to eat them. It is LAW. Luckily, my husband likes candy and M&Ms which I have the power to say no to.

When you live with other people and you are making life changes, you can’t impose them on everyone else in the house, but you can certainly find some middle ground.

Step Two: I know the exact time each week I get to gorge, and I mean GORGE on whatever I’m going to treat myself with that week. I know that on this Saturday night, after my daughter goes to bed and we are watching TV, I will be chowing down on Dunkin Donuts until I am 100% satisfied.

Because I know that is coming, I can stay on track all week. But again, if something I really enjoy just appeared on the kitchen counter, I would have a very hard time saying no. Take away temptation and deny yourself the opportunity to give in to those cravings.

There is no need to feel guilty about your "Cheat Day" Studies have shown that completely denying yourself simple sugars, decreases Thyroid Hormone production, specifically of T-3 and T-4 which have both Anabolic and Energetic benefits. Just plan on a hard workout day, post-Cheat Day to optimize the benefits and "USE" the calories you consumed!

I hope some of these tips helped you and/or your clients stay on track with their goals.

I think the most important thing to remember is there is no magic solution for everyone and sometimes you just have to suck it up and get through the cravings the first few times to show yourself you can.

You will not die if you don’t eat the “fill in the blank.” But you will ruin the hard work you have been putting into the gym if you constantly give in every time you are triggered.

If you have other tips that work for you, please share them so we can spread the word to our #ifpafamily.