Psychologists looking for new ways to describe and explain eating behavior have come up with a novel phrase, “hedonic hunger.” Dr. Michael R. Lowe and colleagues at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pa., describe the phenomenon as “an appetitive counterpart to the psychological effects of other hedonically-driven activities such as drug use and compulsive gambling.”
“Just as compulsive gamblers or drug-dependent individuals are preoccupied with their habit even when they are not engaging in it, so may some individuals experience frequent thoughts, feelings and urges about food in the absence of any short- or long-term energy deficit,” they write in the journal Physiology & Behavior. These experiences may be prompted by food-related cues, they suggest, like the sight or smell of food, talking about, reading about, or even thinking about food.
They say that normally, the attainment of pleasure is both desirable and dangerous. For most of human history the main reason to seek food was survival, but nowadays, among well-nourished populations, much of our food intake occurs for other reasons. “As the growing prevalence of global obesity suggests, an increasing proportion of human food consumption appears to be driven by pleasure, not just by the need for calories,” they write.
The psychologists highlight the unprecedented abundant food environment that affluent societies are creating, “the constant availability and frequent consumption of highly palatable foods.” This has consequences for body mass and health, triggering escalating obesity and the health problems it can bring (diabetes, heart disease, etc).
They say there is evidence that obese individuals prefer and consume highly palatable foods to a greater extent than individuals of normal weight. People of normal weight have previously been thought to eat less for biological reasons, e.g. feeling full, but the experts now suggest that they more likely consciously eat less than they really want to—that is, they curb their hedonic hunger.
Research has shown that “wanting” and “liking” a substance are controlled by different brain chemicals. In the case of palatable foods, the effects on the brain can be similar to those observed in drug addiction.
Subjective feelings of hunger are more likely to reflect our hedonic hunger level than our body’s actual energy needs, and our body’s hunger signals are not closely linked to the amount of food we are likely to eat at the next meal or snack. Satiety, or fullness, has only a small effect on the pleasantness of foods. Instead, it is the availability and palatability of foods which keep us eating.
To measure this tendency, researchers developed a new test of our responses to the “rewarding properties of the food environment,” such as high palatability. The Power of Food Scale is useful as a way of measuring habits such as food craving and binge eating. This test could be an effective way of studying hedonic hunger.
It is already clear from the research that higher-than-normal energy intake is not usually compensated for at later mealtimes, or over the next few days. Our inbuilt system for regulating intake is often overridden. This finding implies that reducing our exposure to palatable food could reduce our hedonic hunger, even if we are on a diet and eating less than usual. Another idea to curb our hedonic hunger if we are trying to lose weight is to choose blander foods.
Although eating to excess is often put down to psychological motives such as comfort seeking, or escape from negative emotions, a variety of “non-stressful cognitive activities” can increase food intake, especially among people who are normally restrained eaters. For example, absorbing or compelling events like watching a film or dining with a large group of friends may divert our attention away from how much food we are consuming, causing us to eat more.
But there is a risk that ceasing consumption of highly palatable foods could increase stress levels and hasten a return to eating them.