What’s the Difference Between Appetite, Cravings and Hunger?

When you’re focusing on your relationship with food to improve your wellness or change your diet – especially for intermittent fasting (IF) – understanding your body’s cues is one of, if not the most important, piece to helping your body get the nutrition it needs. Feeling hungry and thirsty and knowing how to attend to those feelings will not only help you fuel your body productively, but will also help you create a healthy, sustainable relationship with food and IF success.

By definition, appetite, hunger, cravings and feeling full all have different meanings, each describing a different perspective of the science going on inside your body. Next time you’re standing in front of the fridge, pause and ask yourself which of these you’re actually feeling:

  • Hunger: a compelling, physiological signal your body is ready for food. We experience this as tightness in our stomachs. 
  • Appetite: a mental belief and awareness that food would be enjoyable and satisfying. You may feel the anticipation of an upcoming meal, a sharper awareness while eating and a more acute feeling of satisfaction afterward. A sensory experience like seeing or smelling food can activate your appetite. We experience this as an eagerness to eat.
  • Craving: a powerful psychological indication from your mind that you want to eat, and can be directed toward a specific idea like a flavor or texture. You may find yourself thinking of food often, wanting to constantly graze, or searching the cabinets for something to fill up. 
  • Feeling full: eating or drinking something to the point of feeling satisfied and like you don’t want anything else. 

What many of us need to learn is how to hear and choose to respond to what our bodies are saying. When we understand the cues, we can recognize – and decide when to act on – hunger signals. For example, during a fast we might recognize a feeling of hunger but choose not to act on it until our next eating window. Similarly, when we recognize appetite and cravings as motivated by brain urges like boredom or stress, we understand these signals don’t require us to eat. 

While these terms tend to be used interchangeably, their nuances help you understand how your brain and body are communicating to each other depending on your circumstances and environment. When it comes to a proper nutrition plan or diet, it’s important to listen to your body’s signals for hunger – those shouldn’t be ignored – but you can learn how to manage cravings if you understand the difference. 

Here are three common questions and our advice to better understand and navigate hunger during your IF journey:

What causes hunger and cravings?

As we mentioned earlier, hunger and cravings are different signals in your brain and body. Hunger is a physiological cue when your body is ready for food, and the discomfort or hunger pangs you feel aren’t unlike feeling pain if you touch something hot. It’s your body alerting you of something important. 

Cravings, on the other hand, are your mind’s fixation on a food or taste, but cravings can increase your appetite whether you’re hungry or not. Some people believe that cravings are linked to nutrient deficiencies, but there isn’t enough evidence to support the link between the two. 

How do I stop feeling hungry when fasting?

One of the main concerns people have about intermittent fasting is navigating hunger during a fasting window. Will fasting affect your appetite? Will you be able to hold out until your eating window? Will you be able to focus if you’re hungry?

The best strategy to master fasting is to start small or by choosing a realistic fast for your schedule. For example, the 16:8 fast is not far off from a normal breakfast, lunch and dinner eating schedule – you may just be pushing breakfast a little later and finishing dinner a little earlier than you’re used to, but it’s doable. From there, you can explore other fasts that may work well for your body or your time.

You can also use fasting mints to suppress hunger and quash cravings until it’s time to fuel up on nutrient-dense foods during your next eating window. These non-habit-forming, drug- and hormone-free Citravarin mints help balance your biology and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Should I be going to bed hungry while intermittent fasting?

The short answer – no! Part of finding your ideal fasting schedule is figuring out the best solution to keep you full and craving-free at night so you can get a good night’s sleep and your body can heal, flush toxins and power up for the next day of success. The main takeaway of IF is training your body in forming a new habit. This helps you create a healthy relationship with food in the long-run instead of chasing after a quick fad diet with questionable results, and should be tailored to work for your personalized needs, taking your metabolism and bedtime into consideration. 

If you’re finding yourself with the munchies at bedtime or first thing in the morning, another benefit to using fasting mints throughout the day is that they are stimulant-free and available to assist you during those fasting hours when you won’t want your sleep interrupted by an appetite.

All-in-all, success in intermittent fasting doesn’t mean never feeling hunger pangs or experiencing cravings. No one can avoid these completely – and they shouldn’t. Bodies need fuel for energy and our biological makeup is designed to alert us when it needs something. The key is understanding the differences in cues and making the best decisions for your body to perform at high levels, maintain focus and reach your wellness goals by making simple, long-term priority shifts to get there.