Evolution put gnawing hunger in our gut so we’d have the drive—no matter the danger —to seek food.   For some of us, that beast of hunger is always on the prowl.   Why are some wired to constantly seek more, and better tasting, food and drink?

Hunger is the result of a complicated choreography of biochemistry and physiology.  When the stomach empties, the digestive system releases hormones—including ghrelin—which stimulates appetite—into the bloodstream, where they signal the brain, specifically the hypothalamus that we’ve got to eat.   The brain sends a responding signal to our digestive system to get ready for food; thus, the rumbling of our stomach.  When we’re sated, that sets off another brain-to-stomach chemical cascade that tells us to stop (leptin).   It’s a beautifully self-regulating system, except that nowadays for many of us it’s not working.

There are several theories that explain why: the junky diet or raging stress of modern life, or maybe even a gene gone awry.  Actually, what many of us call hunger is in reality ‘conditioned hyper-eating’.  Fast food has opened up a world of tempting options, giving us visual and olfactory cues that are nearly impossible to resist.  The powerful stimuli hijack your brain, and a growling stomach is sure to follow.  But are we really hungry?  Define hunger.  It is the wanting of food.  We get cued based on past memories.

Furthermore, research shows junk food’s magic combination of salt, fat, and sugar stimulates dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward-seeking mechanisms.  When we get caught on that chemical treadmill, our unhealthy eating habits have the power to undo healthy ones.  The corrupting effects are of what scientists call ‘highly palatable foods’ are demonstrated in research on rats.  When given unlimited amounts of cheesecake, bacon and other delectables, soon almost all of the rats were doubling their caloric intake, and had become obese.  The reward pathways in the rats’ brains became less and less sensitive to the food, changes similar to what happens in the brain of a cocaine addict.  They more they ate, the less satisfying it became—which only led them to search in vain for more junk food.  What’s even more interesting is that when the rats were put back on their regular rat chow, they became despondent.  They starved themselves for weeks before they finally went back to their sensible old diet.   So…if people become obese on these foods, then healthy, unprocessed food may not cut it anymore.

The hunger mechanism can also get a false kick-start from stress.  Evolution has given us the stress-related hormone called cortisol, which signals the release of glucose into the bloodstream.  This burst of energy gave us the ability to initiate the fight or flight response.  Now we’re pinned to our desks, worrying about the economy and our jobs, but the same hormonal mechanisms are in place.  Once the body has released glucose, it thinks our energy stores need replenishing, and our appetite perks up.  In modern times the stressor is more likely to be psychological.  Since we’re not using the fuel, it gets deposited as fat.  One of the most common and self-defeating stressors we subject ourselves to is chronic food restriction.  Dieting causes stress, so we’re in this vicious cycle.  Dieting makes us hungry, the stress of being on a diet adds to our hunger, and when we can’t stand it anymore, we comfort ourselves with irresistible bad food choices.  

While some people may have a biological drive to eat more, genes are not destiny.  Carriers of certain genetic markers are no heavier than non-carriers, IF they are active for 3 hours per day.  While this may sound like a lot, until about 100 years ago everybody was that active.  And even moderate activity counts: walking briskly on your lunch hour, taking the stairs, gardening: these all make a difference in how the body processes the energy it gets from food and from the metabolic pathways that derive energy in the body. 

Humans have a powerful tool at their discretion: self-awareness.  If we’re not fasting but feel ravenous all day, sometimes what we’re experiencing is not physiological hunger.   It is within our power to examine and redirect the urges that send us to food.  If one labels a feeling as hunger that legitimizes it.  Many of us have come to believe that hunger itself is intolerable, but it helps to understand that occasional hunger is not an emergency.  After all, food tastes better if you’re hungry.  Test the idea that hunger is tolerable by monitoring how uncomfortable you really are during the day.   Often we realize that our ‘overwhelming hunger’ isn’t really hunger at all, but cravings for the processed foods that offer a ‘sugar high’ and a temporary lift.  Emotional eating is soothing, and it’s often difficult to even acknowledge it, much less entertain the idea of giving it up.  Even those of us who have spent years fighting the tendency to overeat can harness the power to create a better, healthier relationship with food.  Mindful eating combines meditation, psychological insight and physical awareness of the difference between hunger and cravings.  Eating more slowly and savoring food allows the experience of gradually quelling the desire for food.

When your lab-rat brain says your very survival depends on that cupcake, here are some suggestions for regaining the experience of normal sensations of hunger and satiety:

¨      Ask yourself: How hungry am I, really?  The answer to this question is startling to most, in that most of the time they are never more than just mildly uncomfortable.

¨      Remind yourself that another meal is coming.  Divide the day’s intake into a pattern that is sensible for you.  While most people do well with three meals and two snacks per day, play with this pattern to find the most valuable combination for you.

¨      Slow down at meal and snack times.  Instead of blocking out the fact that you’re eating, focus on your food, and the sensations of eating and of satiety.  When we do this, we not only eat less, but the side effects of overeating, eating too fast or poor food choices are minimized (reflux, flatulence, that miserable feeling you have after you’ve overeaten).

¨      Savor your food.  As you take small bites, carefully notice changes in flavor and gratification.  It may take only a few bites before the satisfaction level drops, and then it becomes much easier to stop eating when you’ve had enough.


Sources:   Emily Yoffe, Judith Beck, PhD, David Kessler, MD