Hunger. We’ve all felt it. An emptiness and gnawing feeling that just won’t go away. As if our stomach is turning in on itself. Hunger, in this context, is defined as a physically uncomfortable sensation. This uncomfortable sensation actually exists biologically to create a motivational state that is essential for our survival. Because without enough food, we all would eventually cease to exist. But humans have evolved into far more complex beings than this original hunger signal, and our drive to eat has become confused. Often this causes overeating. Let’s unpack this!
Your hunger drive
As clever creatures as humans are, we don’t always decipher and act on signals correctly. Often, we mix up any uncomfortable signal as hunger. Our ‘drive’ to eat therefore becomes more than just a physical sensation of a churning stomach. Our ‘drive’ is also based upon this complex mix of pleasure-seeking, hormones, sensory cues and much more. We refer to this ‘drive’ as Appetite and the science is much more involved than you may think.
Why do I need to know about hunger?
By understanding appetite and why you eat, you can better address non-hunger eating. You can learn to interpret true hunger cues, manage your appetite and overeating, nourish your body and create the healthiest version of you.
So, let’s look at 2 simple ways the brain affects our appetite cues.
The brain is our metabolism control centre, creating the NEED for food!
Like so many other body regulatory systems (such as body temperature), hunger is influenced by a feedback loop to your brain. Your brain works to release hormones and other neurochemicals in response to certain stimuli, such as our stomach being filled or emptied. The results of these stimuli cause either:
a) Increased metabolism, reduced hunger and an increase in our bodies ability to store energy
b) Decreased metabolism and an increase in our hunger in order to conserve energy and make us hungry enough to ensure we go in search of food.
What does this mean?
It turns out, your body doesn’t really like you losing weight, no matter your starting body weight. So it has some pretty powerful systems in its arsenal to stop this from happening. Ramping up your hunger signals is the main one.
You can influence this feedback loop by:
- Creating a regular eating pattern. This maintains blood sugar levels and ensures metabolism reducing and hunger enhancing extremes (causing overeating) aren’t reached.
- Slow down whilst eating and be mentally present. The more mindful we are when we eat, the more our body and brain can interpret our fullness cues. This also helps to release appropriate amounts of enzymes to aid in digestion.
- Eat a balanced diet with a mix of all macronutrients from wholefoods where possible. Protein, healthy fats and fibre (from carbohydrate-rich foods) all help to slow the emptying of food from the stomach. This not only increases your brain response BUT promotes a gradual trickle of energy into the bloodstream, allowing a less extreme hormone response to food.
The brain manages emotion, creating the WANT for food!
There is a system in our brain called the ‘limbic system’. This systems’ main role is to manage both our motivation and reinforcing behaviours. Lots of neurochemicals are involved in this system. However, the one that we need to mention, in this case, is called dopamine.
Dopamine is linked with every addictive process known to man, due to the happiness it gives us. This is because primitive humans, and most animals, needed to be not only motivated to seek food BUT be ‘rewarded’ when they ate. This system, therefore, affects our WANT for food by providing emotional motivation, and reward. The senses are of great importance to this system. Think of predatory animals’ heightened sense of smell. This releases chemicals essential for ‘motivating’ a hunt, reinforced by achieving its meal.
What does this mean?
Emotions can be misinterpreted as hunger and cause us to seek relief to this ‘discomfort’ by way of overeating. Identifying emotional triggers and keeping a food/mood diary can help to re-establish a healthy relationship with food and oneself. This will also identify emotions that may need alternative management strategies (i.e. boredom, stress etc).
Remember that both the sight and smell of food (specifically the foods we personally associate with nostalgia and pleasure) do affect your appetite. So how can you manage this?
- If you find it hard to manage the urge to consume the sweet-smelling lollies in your cupboard, try placing the jar in a far and inconspicuous location.
- For those that struggle with eating vegetables, you can also use sight and smell, in a positive way, by being creative with your cooking, having fun with your plating of food, and identifying flavours that make you the most excited to eat.
For more help and guidance recognizing your own cues for eating as well as recipes to stimulate the senses and nourish your body, join the 12WBT team here!