Hedonic Hunger

Why do we eat the wrong stuff?

Did you ever succumb to the lure of chocolate when you weren’t the least bit hungry? What about chips, cookies, donuts, ice cream?

We’ve all been there at some point in our lives, experiencing what experts are now calling “hedonic hunger”, which is different from the hunger we feel when we really do need food for energy. You know what hunger pangs feel like, and we’ve all experienced those sometimes audible and embarrassing rumbles in the stomach. If your blood sugar levels fall because your body needs energy (aka food) you may feel shaky.

Hedonic hunger is something else, a response from the brain’s reward centers that has nothing whatsoever to do with your body’s physiological need for food. It can come on when you’re confronted with (or just think about) foods that give you pleasure, and experts say that hedonic hunger is powerful enough to over-ride your better judgment and your lack of hunger. Researchers have shown that on neuroimaging studies foods we crave (usually sugar and simple carbohydrates) can cause brain areas related to pleasure to light up, just as they would in addicts when they come into contact with drugs or alcohol.

This powerful hedonic eating drive may be at least partly responsible for the obesity epidemic. In fact, new research suggests that part of this problem may be an addiction to carbohydrates (although researchers aren’t certain that it is possible to become addicted to food). However, a study at Boston Children’s Hospital found that consuming highly processed carbohydrates can cause excess hunger and stimulate brain regions involved in reward and cravings.

The Boston research team measured blood glucose levels and hunger, while also using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to view brain activity during the crucial four-hours after a meal that influence eating behavior at the next meal. The investigators recruited 12 overweight or obese men to eat two test meals in the form of milkshakes that had the same number of calories and the same sweet taste. The only difference was that one of the shakes contained rapidly digested high-glycemic index carbohydrates while the other contained slowly digested (low glycemic index) carbs.

After the men drank the high-glycemic index milkshake, their blood sugar levels first surged and then crashed four hours later, leaving them very hungry. The researchers also saw what they described as “intense activation” of a brain area involved in addictive behaviors.

I discuss carb craving in my book The Omni Diet* and describe how you can break your addiction to sugar and simple carbs by eating small amounts of protein and healthy fats with each meal and by increasing the volume of your meals by adding a lot of vegetables and a little fruit to your diet. Protein is key, so don’t go more than a few hours without adding some. In fact, increasing your protein intake throughout the day will rev your metabolism and enhance weight loss. You will be amazed at how quickly you lose your cravings if you follow this formula.

 

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