Whetting the Appetite – Part Two: Coping with Hunger Cues

Coping with Hunger Cues

Whetting the Appetite – Part Two: Coping with Hunger Cues

Author: Paul Hollinrake, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/1 August 2018

In part one of this blog, we discussed how our hormones, nervous system and organs work together to regulate appetite. In part two we look at how our environment can have a profound influence on what and how much we eat.

Our bodies have developed so that we regulate appetite within close parameters (homeostasis), in other words, we should eat when hungry and stop when we have had enough and satisfied. However, the physical environment we live in, our culture, senses, emotions, and habits, can all override this system very easily and we can become less “tuned in.”

The Problem

Our physical environment can influence the quantity of food we eat. Studies have shown that people tend to eat more when food is in front of them compared to being six feet away. We also eat more when food is uncovered rather than covered. And larger plates encourage larger portions. With most of us enjoying time spent with friends and loved ones, our social environment also influences what and how much we eat. This can also include cultural influences about when and where it is acceptable to eat. At X-PERT Health one of the dietary approaches we recommend is the Mediterranean diet. This incorporates eating slowly, with friends and family, and enjoying the social aspect of dining. Other cultures pay more attention to eating and promote the practice of only eating to 75/80% full. For example, Indian, Ayurvedic tradition and the Japanese practice of Hara Hachi Bu.

When it comes to our senses, knowing when a food is not smelling or looking good is a protective mechanism that generally serves us well and is useful. We enjoy specific tastes and textures e.g. sweet, savoury, fats, creamy, crunchy and combinations such as sweet-salty. We use our eyes to enjoy the presentation and colours of food. And our smell is closely linked to appetite, memories, and emotions. Emotional cues can heavily influence food choices through stress, anxiety or a desire for comfort eating and celebration food at weddings, birthdays etc.


As the saying goes, “We are creatures of habit.” We like our tea/coffee in a specific cup at a particular time of day or we go to our favourite café/restaurant and have the “usual”. Maybe we have the same breakfast every day, or a glass of wine after work to de-stress.

As already mentioned some of these cues can be useful. Especially if we have healthy habits. However, today we are surrounded by food. Some shops are open 24/7, a lot within walking distance. And for those stressed out folk, it is easy to turn to food for comfort. When this situation occurs then it becomes difficult to maintain a healthy body weight/metabolic health.

The Solution

The goal here is to tap into your hunger cues. Which can vary from day to day and also depends on the type of food eaten and how you react to this. Being mindful and intuitive when you eat is all about going back to basics and becoming aware of what you are doing and how you are feeling.

Being physically aware can mean monitoring symptoms such as headaches, being irritable, feeling stuffed from overeating or having a growling stomach. If you are thinking “I want to eat this” or “I need to eat this” you may need to address how you are approaching the mental side of hunger.

In addition, mindlessly eating food while you do something else e.g. watching television needs to be addressed mentally. Are you eating because you are feeling emotionally stressed/anxious, happy or sad? Then being more aware of the associations between these and eating would be a valuable area to work on. You can read more about mindful eating and how to do it in a previous blog.


Monitoring how you feel following a meal is a very good way of tuning into the trial and error approach to finding a dietary approach that works for you.

1. Immediately after eating. It takes about 20 mins for satiety signals from the gut to go to the brain. If you eat slowly and the correct amount, you should feel slightly hungry, but still satisfied. Eating a meal that includes real food with fibre, protein, and fat (balanced omega 3 to 6 ratio) helps you to feel full. Trial and error here with the composition of a meal helps to fine-tune your dietary approach.

2. After 1 hour. You should not feel hungry and not have any desire to eat a real food meal.

3. After 2 hours. If you are starting to feel quite hungry, then you may not have had enough or the correct type of food for your physiology. At X-PERT we offer different dietary approaches which you can experiment with to find what is right for you.

4. After 3-4 hours. If you are not hungry then you probably had too much food at your last meal. Make a note of the type and quantity so you can adjust for next time. By now you should really be ready to eat again. Note that this can depend on how active you are, so make a note of this as well.

5. After 4 hours. By now the chances are you are starting to feel hungry. This can be a dangerous time if you do not have access to good quality food, it is easy to make poor food choices in these circumstances.

If you are trying to be healthy or get leaner then it is ok to be hungry now and then, this is a natural process. To help balance appetite, exercise and intermittent fasting (IF) can also help. Exercise and IF improves our ability to use fat as an energy source at rest and will, therefore, help to reduce feelings of hunger. You can read more about IF here.


Dieting and poor mental / emotional control of food may lead to weight gain and poor metabolic health.

Being mindful when eating involves eating slowly and away from distractions. Being more aware of emotional eating.

Tune into the body`s hunger and fullness cues and use trial and error to guide you toward the correct amount and type of food for your metabolic type. The goal is to feel satisfied, able to carry on with your day without thinking about food, with enough energy to exercise and have mental clarity.

As with all our blogs and other work we would love to hear your thoughts and feedback, so please feel free to drop me an e-mail at paul.hollinrake@xperthealth.org.uk or message us on Facebook, tweet us at @XPERTHealth or follow us on Instagram @XPERThealth.


Key references and further reading

Castellanos EH, et al. Obese adults have visual attention bias for food cue images: evidence for altered reward system function. Int J Obes 2009;33:1063-1073.

Chaudhri OB, et al. Gastrointestinal satiety signals. Int J Obesity 2008;32:S28-S31.

Chaudhri OB, et al. Gastrointestinal satiety signals. Annu Rev Physiol 2008;70:239-255.

Doolan KJ, Breslin G, Hanna D, Gallagher AM. Attentional bias to food-related visual cues: is there a role in obesity? Proc Nutr Soc. 2015 Feb;74(1):37-45.

Garcia OP, et al. Impact of micronutrient deficiencies on obesity. Nut Rev 2009;67:559-572.

Hagobian RA & Braun B. Physical activity and hormonal regulation of appetite: sex differences and weight control.Exerc Sport Sci Rev 2010:38:25-30.

Hendrikse JJ, Cachia RL, Kothe EJ, McPhie S, Skouteris H, Hayden, MJ. Attentional biases for food cues in overweight and individuals with obesity: a systematic review of the literature.

MJ.Obes Rev. 2015 May; 16(5):424-32.

MacLean PS, et al. Regular exercise attenuates the metabolic drive to regain weight after long-term weight loss. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2009;297:R793-R802.

Essentials of Sport & Exercise Nutrition, Precision Nutrition

What causes increased appetite, https://www.healthline.com/symptom/increased-appetite

How Size and Colour of Plates and Tablecloths Trick Us into Eating Too Much, https://www.forbes.com/sites/nadiaarumugam/2012/01/26/how-size-and-color-of-plates-and-tablecloths-trick-us-into-eating-too-much/#6468ae7d2fcf

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