Down-Shifting Hedonic Hunger

January 19, 2016 in Food and the Brain, Food Economics, Foodland, Uncategorized, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

The term “Hedonic Hunger” gives a name to a very powerful concept in understanding why we overeat certain foods; and why we can’t stop ourselves once we start eating them. Hedonism is from the Greek, and it means seeking pleasure. Hunger is normally not out of control; it is regulated by our bodies in a way that keeps things in balance. When we are hungry, the body sends out hormones – ghrelin is the main one. We find some normal, real food, and we eat it. The hormones subside. But hedonic hunger is about how fats and sweets alter our brain’s satiety-control mechanism, sending our appetites into hyper drive. The pleasure centers in the brain are altered by eating foods designed to activate them. The more we eat the more our brains are changed to seek more and more, as it progressively takes more to get the same kick.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading and came upon an article that was originally published in Scientific American. Of course, we’ve been interested in this subject for quite a few years. My husband, Victor, aka Dr. Grandpa, who received his PhD in psychology from Princeton, wrote some articles related to the subject in 2010. One is Yumminess – Challenging Hedonistic Foodland and another that is often cited is, Full Food Cost Accounting: Part 2. Designing Foods for Craving. In this one, he discussed food hedonics. This term names a sinister form of applied research used to determine how to design combinations of food-like ingredients that progressively make the victims who purchase them crave them more and more. The secret is based on combinations of fat, sugars, and salt, interacting with the pleasure center of the brain and changing it to crave that food. He also touches on the hormones written about in the Scientific American article. Of course, there have also been six additional years of work to help science understand what individuals are experiencing.

What I really like about the Scientific American article is that it shows that researchers are not waiting for the food industry to clean up its act. Let’s be realistic, ethics are not the goal in Big Food; the goal is profit; and there’s lots of reward for designing and making hedonic combinations of foods or fudes, whichever way you want to look at it. Anything that uses the same pleasure centers that are corrupted in the many forms of substance abuse can be very profitable. The more hedonically designed foods are produced, the more purchased, the more profits – it seems like a simple plan. Unfortunately, real people are being hurt.

Michael Lowe PhD, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University coined the term “hedonic hunger” in 2007. Lowe studies the psychobiology of eating and weight regulation, including dieting and preventing and treating obesity. His specific research areas include: the relationship between dieting, overeating and weight control; obesity and the prevention of weight gain and weight regain; eating disorders research; integrating biological and psychological perspectives on eating and weight regulation; and research on the "power of food." He is presently conducting a 5-year NIH-funded study focusing on improving the food environment to improve maintenance of weight loss.

I’ve provided the link to the article in Scientific American, so you can read it in full. But I wanted to make a few comments while more is being learned. First, I wanted to point out that not all of us end up with severely ‘changed brains,’ which drive us to over consume. Let me just share a bit of anecdotal evidence. When I eat certain food items, brownies for example, special chocolate chip cookies, or turkey dressing, I can actually feel drawn to eat more, even though I know I don’t need more. This is not based upon biological hunger (no rumblings in my empty stomach), but on hedonic hunger. It is powerful; but if I remove the brownies, or myself I can get over it. I’m OK. My brain has not been changed. But for some people the cravings, the ravenous hedonic hunger, persists. These persons’ brain circuits do not stifle their appetites when they are full. Read the Scientific American article and it will clearly explain how the hormones regulate hunger (real physiological hunger) and satiety. The body is fascinating!

What I don’t want you to miss is the information that extremely sweet or fatty foods captivate the brain’s reward circuit in much the same way that cocaine and gambling do. That’s powerful! The brain begins responding to fatty and sugary foods even before they enter our mouth. Just seeing a desired item excites the reward circuit. When it touches our tongue, the taste buds begin sending signals to the brains to spew out the neurochemical dopamine, resulting in intense feelings of pleasure. Our brains actually will adapt to too much dopamine by desensitizing itself. The result of the desensitizing is that the brains of overeaters demand more and more sugar and fat to reach the same pleasure that they experienced before with smaller amounts. Some of these people will continue to overeat trying to recapture or maintain a sense of well-being. The ultimate negative impact is that the brain stops responding to the regulatory hormones as the amount of fatty tissue increases in the body.

Surely this is a very sad story for those of us living in an age and location where cheap delicious desserts and junk foods are plentiful. What can be done? If your management of your brain’s pleasure center has not passed a certain point, you can start by getting the food out of your sight (and other senses for that matter). Getting the food out of the house, and out of sight, is evidence that you still have some control, so do pay attention to environmental control. Lowe says that for some, it means “never bringing fatty, super sweet foods into the house in the first place and avoiding venues that offer them whenever possible.” Remember, the cravings, once they have you in their grip can begin with the mere sight of the fatty, sweet foods. The Scientific American article describes the experience of Elizabeth O’Donnell who developed the habit of passing up buffet-style restaurants. Lowe says that is exactly the kind of simple change that can make a huge difference in the struggle to maintain a healthy weight.

Controlling the environment is powerful; don’t miss the opportunity to let it help you. Many of us have discovered how our self-control is pumped up by not having to face the highly hedonistic foods; in essence we are practicing environmental control.

Because some of the hunger hormones are produced in the stomach, some people who are severely affected by this problem respond very well to bariatric surgery. It seems that the smaller (banded or reduced) stomach produces less hormone and that causes less hunger. In addition, it seems that the people who have undergone bariatric surgery also become re-sensitized to smaller amounts of dopamine. What the researchers are hoping for is that eventually they can mimic the effects of bariatric surgery with drugs and without the risk of surgery. Some are already being prescribed drugs that reduce pleasure-driven eating.

If your hedonic appetite is in hyper drive, you’ve tried to clean up your environment and you can’t seem to get it to settle down, you may want to consider getting help from an expert who is knowledgeable in the specific field of hedonic eating. I’d say a great place to start is with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). There’s an 800 number on the first page of this link and there are free evaluations on their site. You don’t have to let an eating disorder ruin your life; there’s lots of support and scientifically based treatment now. People like Michael Lowe PhD aggressively study this field and more information is available to help end this problem. Just today a new study about the impact of fat taste sensitivity was published in Medical News Today (MNT). There is so much new research to help conquer eating disorders. People are successfully overcoming hedonic appetites in hyper drive and other eating disorders. It’s possible to whip the hormones into shape and get your appetite under control, essentially down-shifting hedonic hunger.