Hedonic hunger: The urge to eat more than necessary

Updated: Feb 22 2014, 14:28pm hrs
DietAn increasing proportion of food consumption appears to be driven by pleasure, not just by the need for calories. Thinkstock
An increasing proportion of food consumption appears to be driven by pleasure, not just by the need for calories. Eating for pleasure than to satisfy our biological need is the norm rather than the exception. This phenomenon is referred to as hedonic eating and results in food intake that can override the bodys innate homeostatic system that helps control eating, leading to over-consumption of calories. The food environment in affluent societies may be creating a psychological effect comparable to other hedonically driven activities such as drug use and gambling.

What we choose to eat and when we eat are determined by hunger and our appetite signals. Hunger relates to the innate need to eat and is associated with unpleasant sensation coupled with physiological need, also referred to as internal factors. Appeasing it, creates satiety no further desire to eat.

In contrast, appetite is a complex phenomenon, which refers to signals that guide dietary selection, often in the absence of obvious hunger. Appetite is usually associated with pleasure during food consumption and is mainly governed by external factors. Hedonic hunger, a new dimension of appetite, has recently been recognised.

Hedonic hunger incorporates motivational (reward), cognitive, and emotional influences on eating. It is governed by external stimuli like food-related cues such as seeing food, taste, palatability or smell of food, talking about; reading about, or even thinking about food, food preferences, aromas, meal times, memories, emotions and associations; environmental factors such as climate, food advertisements, presence of others, social settings, beliefs, religion and philosophy. Interestingly, while hedonic hunger leads to obesity, in turn research suggests that hedonic hunger increases with obesity and is dependent on the body weight of an individual. The higher the body mass index, more the hedonic hunger.

Hedonic hunger and the resultant overeating have been compared to drug addiction for several reasons. In response to hedonic hunger, an individual usually becomes overly focussed on eating, feels a loss of control over starting and stopping eating, and requires increasing amounts of food to satisfy the urge to eat. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Nutrition reported that obese patients displayed a marked increase in hedonic hunger that is not observed in patients who have undergone gastric bypass surgery, suggesting that the operation normalises excessive appetite for palatable foods.

Our relationship with food has undergone a change, we are living to eat rather than eating to live. Stress and psychological disturbances may also cause the release of appetite-stimulating signals of the brain. We are responding more to external cues in choosing when and what to eat.

Each of us can begin by redefining our relationship with food by recognising what drives us to eat. We must eat to live rather than live to eat.

Ishi Khosla