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Hunger or craving: What makes you want to eat
published: Saturday | April 12, 2008

Heather Little-White, Contributor

Chances are that you have never really experienced hunger in your life, but you eat because you have an appetite. Hunger may be defined as the necessity of food, leading to sickness or death in the case of starvation.

You may not be hungry as we are made to believe, but you may have a craving for something or an appetite to eat. Appetite is more manageable in making food choices. Selecting foods can be a complex matter, especially when trying to balance weight and enjoying the pleasures of certain foods.

You may be battling with excess weight and in order to lose weight, you will try every diet that comes your way. You may even develop an obsession in finding the perfect weight-loss formula that you get paranoid to eat and may even starve to attain your goal. One of the keys to weight loss or maintenance is to understand the distinctions between hunger and appetite.

Hunger vs appetite

There is a difference between hunger and appetite. According to Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of behavioural health and one of the leading experts on appetite and eating, "Hunger has more to do with physiological need for food, and appetite relates more to choosing foods you like and the factors that go into them are different."

When you decide to prepare a meal and sit down to eat it, or you go to a restaurant and select from a menu, the choices you make are based more on appetite than hunger. Appetite is a social phenomenon that influences meal preparation, the style and service of food. Appetite affects lifestyle and drives the menu selection on social occasions. Appetite contributes to the amount you consume in social settings with family and friends compared to eating alone.

Sweet endings

A University of Georgia study showed that eating in groups of six or more persons dramatically increased the appetite of study participants. The report further indicated that eating with one companion only minimally increased appetite. Rolls observed that there was an inclination to eat more desserts when dining with others. This 'sweet-ending' practice is unpredictable as the desire may be influenced more by social than physiological factors.

In differentiating between appetite and hunger, Rolls cautions about dieting and the use of appetite suppressants, which interfere with food signals from the brain. Food stimulates a physical response - just seeing or smelling it - but suppressants kill the desire to eat. The brain's hypothalamus is stimulated along with receptors along the gastrointestinal tract carrying chemical messages edging you on to eat or stop eating.

Blood-sugar levels

Hunger is chemical in its reaction. Studies in animals showed that hunger involved several peptides which affect eating behaviour. Two peptides are associated with hunger - one causes you to eat more, while the other appears to make you feel full. You should be aware of the signals which tell you that you need to start eating. Hunger and obesity research has shown that the main cue for you to find food in some form is a little light-headedness due to a slight drop in blood-sugar levels. However, after about 12 minutes, the drop in sugar reverses and you won't feel light-headed again.

This may happen regularly throughout the day and explains why you can work through lunch without eating. While some persons employ this tactic to prevent them from overeating, it is not healthy, especially if you are diabetic or are on the border line. Research is continuing in new weight-control drugs with the ability of resetting the body's hunger clock and curbing appetite.

Hedonistic pleasure

As you watch calories, Rolls believes that pleasure is the most important element of appetite. So you can eat almost any food in moderate quantities but the pleasure comes from savouring it and getting the hedonistic pleasure. Staying away from foods you love is not advisable, as the urges you feel for those foods are strong and drives you to pig out.

Sensual diversity

Appetite research has shown that your taste for food changes as you eat, so you will eat more in a three-course meal than when there is just one. The conclusion is that the body wants sensual diversity. Rolls explains that this why dessert is so well liked.

To satisfy cravings between meals, it is advisable to eat foods that are nutritious and filling such as fruits, vegetables, soup and low-fat yoghurt. Drink lots of water and eat low-fat foods which have fewer calories than carbohydrates.

Problems with your appetite may be caused by digestive problems or other health challenges. The problems may also be psychological, such as loneliness, depression and anxiety.

Whether it is hunger, craving or appetite that prompts you to eat, remember that nutritional balance is critical to good health.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in the Corporate Area. Send comments to or fax 922-6223.

Perk up your palate

Try to identify the cause of lack of appetite.

Eat four to six smaller meals, taking seconds if you are not full.

Allow yourself enough time to eat and savour meals. Rushing meals affects digestion and creates discomfort.

Serve foods hot to get the digestive juices flowing. Heat brings out the aroma of food and makes it enticing.

Add pizzazz to food by making it appealing.

Eat by the clock rather than waiting on hunger cues.

Drink a glass of beer or wine before meals to perk up the appetite. Check with your doctor before you engage in this practice.

Exercise or other activities before meals will help to jump-start the appetite.


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