Appetite vs Cravings: How to tell the difference

You’ve just spent 45 minutes of your day thrashing your body through an intense exercise session in an effort to lose weight and your metabolism is cranking! Even though you’ve drank copious amounts of water and eaten, you are sooo hungry, but are worried that eating more than normal will just counteract all the hard work you put into burning those extra calories this morning. What do you do?

Metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that occur in our cells to sustain life. To carry out these processes, the body converts the food we eat into energy. Chemicals in our digestive system break down the food into fuel, which is either used immediately or stored in the body’s tissues as fat. The energy (calories) expended over a day for us to be able to survive is called our basal metabolic rate.

Although you can’t control your metabolism, it can be stimulated during exercise – when you exercise you burn more energy. Also the fitter you are and the more lean muscle that you have, (muscle requires more energy to function than fat) the more of these chemical reactions that take place, raising your basal metabolic rate (so you burn more calories when doing nothing!)

Hunger and thirst are physiological mechanisms the body uses to tell the brain that it needs nutrients.The often-unpleasant feeling of hunger originates from the hypothalamus releasing hormones that target receptors in the liver.

Physiological hunger can be recognized by a growling stomach or a slightly nauseous and/or light-headedness, and usually comes on gradually after a period without food (anywhere from approximately 2-6 hours). The appropriate response to physiological hunger is to eat and learning identify your hunger signals are important in weight loss and management. Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied can have a huge impact on managing your appetite.

Try not to mix up physiological hunger with appetite. Appetite is the desire to eat food without a physiological need, but is often felt as hunger (psychological hunger). In some cases hunger can even be mistaken for thirst, which is one reason I encourage you to drink 500-600mL of water before you eat.

Appetite can be caused by a number of other psychological factors, some of which include:

Routine: Hunger can be stimulated by your biological clock (which is also regulated by the hypothalamus). So if everyday you eat lunch at 12pm, then at 12pm you may feel hungry just because your body’s clock says so.

Cognitive: When the sight, smell, taste, texture or talking about food you like, triggers hunger i.e, if one doesn’t like popcorn, the smell of popcorn doesn’t trigger hunger. Interestingly, people can also feel hungry for a particular taste; sweet, sour, bitter, or salty, and will keep feeling hungry until the particular taste is satisfied.

 How to fix: Distract your self with something else; go and DO something, change the subject, spray some perfume etc, anything to take your mind off it.

Emotional – Stress can lead to high levels of the hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fatty foods because they give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief. This kind of hunger often comes on suddenly and can cause you to keep eating beyond the point of satisfaction, triggering feelings of guilt and powerlessness.

 How to fix: In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to emotionally fulfill yourself. Understanding your emotional triggers andemotional eating cycle is a good first step, though it’s not enough. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment eg. When feeling anxious; pump some music and bust out dancing to expend some energy. If you’re bored; find a hobby, watch a good movie, or learn something. If you’re tired; have a hot tea, a bath or a nap. If feeling depressed; ring a friend or go through some old happy photos etc.

After a workout your muscle fibres are damaged and your energy stores depleted, so your body recognises a need for protein for muscle growth and repair, and carbohydrate (the fastest and easiest source of fuel for the body to use) to restock energy supply, which triggers physiological hunger and why you may feel hungrier on days when you work out. When on a weight loss diet however, you want your body to use your stored fat for fuel instead of carbohydrate, and this is why a lower-carbohydrate diet combined with an effective exercise program is usually beneficial for people with goals of fat loss. It is also important to make sure you are consuming enough protein (as I detailed in the BodyBAM Nutrition guide) so that your body can maintain and build your muscle mass. So if you eliminate the psychological hunger factors and thirst and you are still left with hunger, then EAT!! This is your body’s mechanism for telling you it needs nutrients, usually in the form of protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and/or carbohydrate. Depriving your body of the nutrients it requires can cause the body to break down, function at a lesser rate and unnecessarily store energy as fat in the body’s tissues. So, start with 500-600mL of water, then eat some salad/vegetables (favouring green ones) and a little protein and unsaturated fat; more often than not your hunger will be gone.

If after a short time you are hungry again, repeat the process, but the trick is to eat slowly, recognise when you are no longer hungry (don’t keep going until you’re full) and stop there.