Hunger and cravings are two key factors that drive our decision to eat and influence our food choices. They are feelings and experiences that we get as a result of the complex signaling between our stomach and brain:
- Gut-brain hunger signals (when your stomach tells your brain that you are full or hungry)
- The brain reward process (feeling pleasure or joy from food)
- Cognitive control processes (conscious thoughts, feelings, mindset, decisions, etc.)
The Role of Biology
Many people who struggle with weight have biological factors at play that can affect their relationship with food and food-related decisions. No two people experience hunger and respond to it the same way. It is important that the role of biology in hunger is more widely recognized to help others understand how complicated weight issues can be.
Gut-Brain Hunger Signals
Why do we get hungry? Your digestive tract has receptors that can detect when nutrients are present. When you don’t have enough nutrients, these receptors tell your stomach to produce hunger hormones that send a signal to your hypothalamus – the part of your brain that controls hunger and thirst. As a result, you get hungry and want to eat.
When we gain weight, our brains become less sensitive to signals that control how responsive our brain is to nutrients. For example, someone at a higher weight may not have as much leptin (the fullness hormone) and is more likely to feel hungry. That’s why some people affected by obesity may be more biologically likely to struggle with overeating.
Food is Rewarding
Another key element of hunger is psychology. Food is very rewarding and its effects on the brain can make it hard to resist temptation when environmental cues are everywhere. This can also cause you to eat even when you’re not hungry.
Here are two key parts of the brain’s reward system:
- The Endocannabinoid System – A system of signaling molecules whose main function is to help the body maintain homeostasis (a stable internal state). It affects mood, appetite, stress, sleep and more.
- The Opioid System – A system of the brain that controls pain, reward and addicting behaviors (like stress-eating or binge eating).
Both of these systems can have powerful effects on your desire for food, your cravings, and your enjoyment of food. When we eat foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, these systems increase activity in the brain that ramps up your desire to eat.
The third key element of hunger and cravings involve your conscious control. Cognitive control helps you decide when not to respond to food cues and hunger signals. However, it can be tough to manage when you are really hungry, stressed or upset in any way.
When we are in a better mood and not starving, it’s easier to ignore food cues and cravings. When we are stressed or depressed, we are more likely to eat based on our feelings. This is called emotional eating or stress eating.
Managing Hunger and Cravings
So, what does all this mean and how can you manage hunger and cravings? Check out the full article from the Obesity Action Coalition, Founder of the Your Weight Matters Campaign.