Is It Hunger … or Just Appetite?

It’s 3 p.m. and your concentration is being compromised by recurring thoughts of food. Are you really hungry? And how can you honestly tell?

“Hunger is a physical need,” says New Jersey-based registered dietitian Robyn Flipse. “Your blood sugar level drops, and there are contractions in the stomach that cause growling and rumbling. They are signals to go seek food.” If you aren’t feeling any of those, chances are it’s boredom, habit or some other emotion that’s making you want to eat. “Appetite is the psychological desire for food,” says Flipse. Here’s how to spot the difference throughout the day.

Odds are good you wake up with genuine hunger, since it’s the longest stretch of time you go over the course of a day without putting food in your mouth. Make a wise choice with your breakfast to stay satiated, setting yourself on course for a healthy mealtime hunger schedule throughout the day. (Our pick: Kellogg’s Raisin Bran® cereals. Not only are there four delicious varieties, but all are made with whole grains and are a good source of fiber.)

It may be noon, but if you’re racing to the refrigerator, cafeteria or drive-thru even though you just had a bagel an hour before, it’s habit that’s driving you, not famine. “If we only responded to hunger, we wouldn’t be looking to eat until we felt the physical signals,” says Flipse. Break from your pre-set routine and wait to grab a bite until genuine feelings of hunger emerge. “A lot of people have never experienced hunger,” says Flipse, “because they have so blunted it through appetite as an excuse to eat.”

This is perhaps the time of day when emotions like stress or boredom are most likely driving your urge to eat -- not to mention other temptations like office birthday parties or snacking with your kids. “Our culture has so many cues to eat all around us,” says Flipse. “We can have our appetite stimulated because we’re constantly exposed to food.” Before you put anything into your mouth, pay attention to what your tummy is telling you.

If you’ve had a balanced dinner -- lean protein, fiber-full whole grains and vegetables -- odds are good that it’s not hunger catapulting you to the freezer for a pint of ice cream. Unless you have a non-traditional sleeping schedule, after-dark noshing is very, very rarely because you’re starving. Ask yourself this before you put anything in your mouth: When is the last time I ate anything? If the answer is within an hour or two, you’re probably not hungry. The culprit may actually be that you didn’t drink enough water at dinner and are dehydrated instead of hungry; try filling up on a glass of water to see if it eases your hunger pangs.