In the good old days, most people ate primarily in response to real hunger. Increasingly in?modern societies a large proportion of what people eat today is consumed more for pleasure than simply to placate the biological drive of hunger. Research is now finding that when people eat for pleasure instead of for physiologically normal hunger the endogenous reward center in the brain is primarily what is motivating them to eat those extra calories. A study conducted by Dr. Monteleone at the University of Naples?SUN in Italy sought to better understand the differences between eating for pleasure compared to eating in response to true hunger. Dr Monteleone says ?hedonic hunger refers to the desire to?eat for pleasure, rather than to restore the body?s energy needs.? He gives an example I often use and that is eating a high calorie desert like a piece of cake after a very satiating meal has nothing to do with real hunger driven by energy needs. In a study published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism Dr. Monteleone examined the response of 8 young adults, ages 21 to 33, who were already satiated (not hungry) and consumed their favorite food and later a less palatable food with the same caloric value. He measured the levels of ghrelin and 2-arachidinly-glycerol (2-AG) in the blood periodically after?the consumption of their favorite highly palatable food and the less palatable food. 2-AG is a potent eicosanoid that stimulates the endocannabinoid system in the brain. Cannabis (a.k.a. ?pot? or marijuana) with its active ingredient THC is also a known stimulus of the same neurons in the brain. They found increased levels of these two potent hunger hormones in the blood when they ate their favorite foods but not when they ate a more bland food. Dr. Menteleone this indicates: ?Hedonic hunger may powerfully stimulate overeating in an environment where highly palatable foods are omnipresent, and contribute to the surge in obesity.? Simply put, this research suggests that when the dessert cart rolls around after you?ve already told everyone at the table your so stuffed you cannot eat another bite you decide to have another 500+ calories even though there is not a shred of real hunger left. Dr. Monteleone?s small study suggests the decision to eat your favorite dessert is actually quite similar to what drives the drug addicts to light up.
A well-known side effect of smoking pot (or consuming it in food) is called the ?munchies?. It appears that when pot smokers get the ?munchies? they develop an intense craving to eat specific highly palatable foods. Most often these foods are high in fat and carbohydrate and are very calorie dense. The restaurant industry understands all too well that tempting people who have already satiated themselves with a big meal to order dessert requires that those dessert items be highly palatable or it?s a no sale.
It may be more efficacious to counsel people to be able to identify real internally driven hunger and to eat only in response to real hunger than to teach people to count calories. Differentiating cravings from real hunger is a critical first step in helping people reduce their calorie intake and lose excess weight without having to fight hunger. Calorie dense foods full of fat, sugar, and/or salt are most often consumed for pleasure rather than true hunger. When these foods are eaten regularly they appear to set a self-perpetuating drug-like reward system in the brain. If so it may be preferable for those who intensely crave unhealthy foods high in fat, sugar or salt to stop eating them completely. Nobody who understands a drug addict?s craving for nicotine, cocaine, heroin, or alcohol thinks that trying to teach an addict to consume?the addicting substance in moderation is likely to be successful. Do experts on alcohol dependence or Alcoholic Anonymous believe it is useful to counsel alcoholics to drink in moderation? And yet the mantra we hear from the commercial food industry and its lackeys is that all foods can fit into a healthy diet. Fighting real hunger is pathological and can lead to eating disorders, whereas using willpower and behavioral strategies to eliminate food addictions/ cravings seems a more productive approach. The only way to eliminate cravings is stop putting the addictive substance in your body.
By James J. Kenney, PhD, FACN.
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Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.