The term ‘hedonic hunger’ refers to one’s preoccupation with and desire to consume foods for the purposes of pleasure and in the absence of physical hunger. People who experience significant food deprivation and are in an acute state of caloric need are considered to be in a state of “homeostatic” or physiological hunger.
When we eat delicious food, we get a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is part of the reward system in our brain. It makes us feel good, so we keep eating the food to get that feeling. (This may help explain what’s behind stress eating, and our time-honored impulse to try to fight sadness with our favorite “comfort” foods). Eventually, the brain changes, so even just anticipating eating the food can cause a dopamine rush. This is why I called it hedonic hunger. It’s a hunger for more pleasure, not for more nutrition.
We’re Tempted by Endless Environmental Cues
Unlike eat-to-live homeostatic hunger, which our bodies alert us to, hedonic hunger is largely prompted by external cues, like the sight of glistening chocolate sauce, the scent of a fresh pizza, or simply plopping down in front of the TV if that’s your favorite place to relax with a bowl of ice cream.
“The Variety Effect”
The more food options that we can choose from, the more we’re likely to consume, a phenomenon known as the “variety effect”. And working alongside the variety effect is sensory-specific satiety: Imagine you eat all the steak and potatoes you think you can hold, and the sheer delight of those first few bites has faded—but then apple pie is put on the table promising to tickle a different set of taste buds, and you suddenly have the proverbial “room” to eat more.
The Myth of Self-Control
Most of us are surrounded by the same sensory cues, but some of us are more compelled to follow through on our hedonic drives. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Nutrition, when offered appetizing food, people who reported that they often experience hedonic hunger showed more activity in the reward areas of their brain than their peers who were less compelled by cravings. Research suggests there’s a complicated interplay between dopamine, the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin, and our endocannabinoid system, a vast collection of neurotransmitters that help control eating as well as functions like memory, emotional processing, and sleep. The fact that some people have a greater neural response than others seem to be partially due to differences in DNA.
How to Stop Overeating and Manage Hedonic Hunger
1. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep
Research has shown that the reward regions of the brain become more sensitive to cravings when people are sleep deprived (getting less than six hours of sleep a night). So, the more tired you are, the more easily you’ll give in to foods high in sugar and fat.
2. Manage stress and identify your triggers
Though an isolated high-stress episode, like a death in the family, can reduce hedonic eating, chronic stress has been shown to do the opposite and trigger stress eating. If you think stress is leading you to eat more than your body needs, consider replacing this stress eating habit with a healthier habit like taking a walk, a meditation session, or a yoga class. It may not give you the same immediate “kick” as a bag of M+Ms, but you will feel better for it in the proverbial long run.
3. Think about your habits
Ask yourself something like, “When am I enticed by high-calorie foods? When I’m with certain people? In certain situations? When I’m scrolling through social media? Etc….” Try to imagine the outcomes: “If I give in to this craving, how is it going to make me feel? Guilty? Bad about myself? If so, what if I don’t act on it?” No doubt, this kind of mindfulness can be hard to do, but if you stick with it, it has been shown to be a really effective strategy in managing hedonic hunger and overeating.
4. Try a visualization technique
Picture yourself in The Bahamas or wherever you’d love to be at the moment of your craving. The idea is to imagine engaging in something that’s not related to food but equally pleasurable. In a 2021 study in the journal, Appetite, participants with self-reported chocolate cravings were asked to imagine that their favorite chocolate was sitting in front of them, then to either let their minds wander or visualize sitting peacefully by a stream watching leaves float by. Afterward, those that visualized said they felt less compelled to eat the chocolate.
5. Get some exercise
Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity has been shown to lessen the desire for high-fat foods and can help with the temptation to overeat overall. There is abundant research that doing just 150 minutes of low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise can significantly reduce the desire to overeat. Never mind the fact that they are burning calories as well!
6. Consider therapy to understand and rewire habits
If disordered eating, overeating, or stress eating is interfering with your daily life and happiness, therapy should be considered. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective with binge-eating disorders. Other types of therapy, like mindfulness-based, dialectical behavior, and acceptance and commitment can also help you learn not to respond impulsively to strong urges and emotions.