Is appetite biological or psychological?

[Article updated on 19/09/2023]

Who has never heard the famous: “To taaaable”!

Before reading on

I’m not an expert in this field, but I am passionate about nutrition and health.

The articles you’ll find on my site are the result of in-depth research that I’d like to share with you. However, I would like to stress that I am not a health professional and that my advice should in no way replace that of a qualified physician. I’m here to guide you, but it’s important that you consult a professional for specific questions or medical concerns. Your well-being is important. So be sure to consult the appropriate experts and take the best possible care of yourself.

Breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner are punctuated according to a very precise tempo whose metronome is regular, stable, without surprises. It’s noon, it’s time to eat, at 8 p.m. we have dinner, whether we’re hungry or not.

But do we ever question our appetite? His hunger? His desire to eat? Throughout this article I would like to encourage you to question yourself, your eating sensations as well as your own needs. Where does appetite come from? Is it biology or psychology? Should we be hungry at mealtime?

Hormones at play in the feeling of hunger

Hunger regulation is a process that involves various hormones acting in harmony. The two main hormones involved in regulating hunger are ghrelin and leptin.

  • Ghrelin, often called the “hunger hormone,” is produced primarily by the stomach and stimulates the appetite. Its levels increase before meals and decrease after eating, thereby triggering the feeling of hunger and the urge to eat.
  • Leptin, often called the “satiety hormone,” is produced by adipose (fat) cells and regulates the amount of fat stored in the body. Leptin works by sending a signal to the brain to reduce appetite when fat stores are sufficient.

Other hormones also play a role in regulating hunger and appetite. Insulin, for example, regulates blood sugar levels by controlling the entry of glucose into cells. When insulin levels are high after a meal, it can contribute to feelings of fullness.

Let’s not forget the hormones linked to stress, such as cortisol which can influence appetite. Chronic stress can disrupt hormonal signals, leading to inappropriate eating behaviors (eating when you are not hungry, going well beyond your normal satiety or even eating one’s emotions).

Hunger and appetite are regulated by this network of hormones. They work in coordination to maintain your body’s energy balance by adjusting appetite based on metabolic needs and fat stores.

eating as a psychological need

Emotional eating

Emotional eating is the tendency to eat in response to emotions rather than physical hunger.

Stress, boredom, sadness and anxiety can influence food choices and lead to overconsumption of food, often high in calories and sugars.
When food is used to cope with emotions, it can create a vicious cycle of eating behaviors. Food becomes a means of comfort, distraction, or relief from temporary emotions. These food choices systematically lead to feelings of guilt, shame and frustration afterwards.

Being aware of your emotional eating habits is essential to managing them in a healthier way. This may include the mindfulness practice, where we learn to recognize real hunger and satiety signals as well as the emotions that trigger overconsumption.

Understanding your emotional eating also involves developing strategies for managing emotions alternatives such as physical exercise, meditation, learn to communicate about your feelings or simply have pleasant activities. The idea is to find an outlet for your emotions that is other than food.

Lifestyle habits, education at stake

The link between education and eating habits influences the way each of us prepares and consumes our food. Education plays a crucial role in shaping food preferences and diet-related behaviors.
This will influence the intensity of taste, the perception of flavors, the taste for novelty or even eating behaviors.

Early nutrition education can help lay a strong foundation for healthy eating habits. Children who are exposed to a variety of foods from a young age tend to develop healthier preferences in the long term.
In addition, a basic understanding of nutrition can help individuals make informed food choices throughout their lives (I am talking here about balanced diet, food combination, etc.).

However, the link is complex because other social, economic and cultural factors can also influence dietary habits. Food environments, social norms and financial constraints can all play a major role in food choice.

psychological hunger

Become that child again!

Intuitive connection to food means the natural ability to understand and respond to the body’s internal signals regarding hunger, satiety and food preferences. In children this intuitive connection is often stronger because they are generally more in tune with their bodily sensations (not concerned by the idealized body image of our society for example).

Children have this ability to eat when their body demands it and stop eating when they are full. Younger people tend to listen to their eating sensations naturally, without overanalyzing their diet. A child may refuse to eat even if his parents encourage him if he is not hungry.

Be careful, this intuitive relationship can be negatively influenced by external factors such as incentives to finish your plate, rigid dietary restrictions or negative messages about the body and diet. These influences can disrupt a child’s natural ability to listen to their body and can lead to less healthy eating habits that they carry into adulthood.

I invite you to rediscover this intuitive relationship with food which involves creating a favorable environment where bodily signals will be respected, where attention is focused on the pleasure of eating and where the emphasis is placed on variety and balance rather than strict rules.

I encourage you to listen to your body and develop a positive relationship with food which promotes healthy and sustainable eating habits for your future.

As you will have understood, appetite is biological as well as psychological. You have the cards in your hands to reconnect with these food sensations, it’s up to you!