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Not all Hunger is Created Equal - Homeostatic vs. Hedonic Hunger

Everyone gets hungry, whether on a weight loss journey, maintaining your current weight or developing healthier eating habits. What you may not know is that there are different types of hunger.

There's the traditional idea of hunger, homeostatic hunger: when you haven't had anything to eat in hours and your stomach growls. This feeling of hunger comes from your body's need for calories; the need for energy triggers that 'time to eat' signal.

The most practical way to eliminate homeostatic hunger is to eat. The hunger hormone, ghrelin, starts to rise, but is then curbed as soon as eating begins. As food moves through the body, a sequence of satiety signals are initiated, first in the mouth and continuing through the stomach and intestines. These signals let the brain know that there is food in your system. And the best way to keep that feeling of fullness is to opt for nutrient-dense foods that fill you up.

Of course, if people ate solely because their bodies needed calories, it would be easy to understand. However, that's not the case. People don't only eat because of the signals that control our energy stores. Now and then, you just want food.

This sort of hunger is called "hedonic hunger." This type of hunger; wanting to eat, dwelling on food or eating solely for pleasure and carnal self-indulgence — isn't as well understood as traditional homeostatic hunger. It's classified as eating 'high-reward' foods predominantly high in fat, carbs, or sugar that provide a "feel good" dopamine hit. Overconsumption of these high-calorie, low-nutrient foods creates addictive responses in the brain because of that dopamine.

Apart from our in-the-moment feelings about food, the processes in our bodies that regulate hunger are complex. Many factors beyond what we tend to eat daily can influence these processes, one of the main factors being sleep.

A lot of research shows that not getting sufficient sleep increases hunger. For example, lack of sleep can increase ghrelin levels (hunger hormone) and decrease leptin (satiety hormone) levels. Swings in these hormone levels are generally associated more with homeostatic hunger. Still, there's some evidence that lack of sleep may also increase hedonic hunger.

Other than getting enough sleep, there are some things you can do to help hinder hedonic hunger. Eating nutrient-dense foods that serve as premium fuel for your daily activities is first. Understanding the importance of not just calories but nutrients (macronutrients, micronutrients, fiber etc.) can help you stay full longer and help to avoid cravings. Exercise, specifically high-intensity exercise, has been shown to reduce appetite in the short term. However, low-impact, steady-state exercise, particularly for long periods of time, may increase appetite and cause you to overeat after your workout if you're not eating mindfully.

Other things can help, like understanding your triggers, such as situations, places, or feelings that make you reach for comfort food. While most emotional eating is connected to negative feelings or emptiness, it can also be triggered by positive emotions. Beyond typical triggers like stress, boredom, or restrained emotions, we have social influences that began with childhood reward systems such as candy treats and bribes. Only you can recognize and address those symptoms.

Preparing meals and snacks in advance gives you something to grab when hedonic hunger sets in. Keeping healthier snacks in your pantry and refrigerator limits the availability of higher fat / higher calorie food. Have something readily available to answer any hedonic trigger—eventually, they do go away.

Hunger can be difficult to control but with some planning and thoughts you are the one that can do it.

Commonsense Nutrition for Everyone!

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