Hedonic hunger: bulimia, binge eating, compulsive eating and obesity

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Hedonic hunger: bulimia, binge eating, compulsive eating and obesity

“Hedonic Eating” literally translates to “pleasure eating.” It refers to eating in the absence of biological need or hunger. From my standpoint it describes a pattern of disordered eating that contributes to the current rise with eating disorders and obesity. With few exceptions it involves cravings for highly palatable foods – usually sugar laden, unhealthy fats, refined flour aka most highly processed foods. You know, the usual fare at most fast food chains and shelves of our supermarkets.

From an evolution perspective, sweet taste was a necessary attribute as any foods that tasted sweet were edible and not poison and those that were calorie dense the best for survival. Today, most of us remain “hardwired” to prefer sweet foods and those that quickly breakdown to simple carbohydrates despite no longer needing to protect ourselves from poisonous plants and animals. The end result with the availability of highly processed [sweet and calorie dense junk] foods creates an addictive relationship with these substances for many of us. It does so by tapping into the brain’s reward circuits and provides “pleasure” / reward. The problem is when abused this process results in a “tolerance” – needing more and more to gain the same reward or effect [satiety]. More food to feel satisfied leads to unnecessary, unwanted weight gain or a form of disordered eating such as binge eating disorder or bulimia [where purging is a misguided effort to undo the caloric consequences of overeating].

Below is a summary of how this process works:

“Research has shown that the brain begins responding to fatty and sugary foods even before they enter our mouth. Merely seeing a desirable item excites the reward circuit. As soon as such a dish touches the tongue, taste buds send signals to various regions of the brain, which in turn responds by spewing the neurochemical dopamine. The result is an intense feeling of pleasure.

Frequently overeating highly palatable foods saturates the brain with so much dopamine that it eventually adapts by desensitizing itself, reducing the number of cellular receptors that recognize and respond to the neurochemical.

Consequently, the brains of overeaters demand a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same threshold of pleasure as they once experienced with smaller amounts of the foods. These people may, in fact, continue to overeat as a way of recapturing or even maintaining a sense of well-being.”