• Posted by CERC India
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How sugar and fat trick the brain into eating more

Sweet or fatty foods captivate the brain’s reward circuit and are as addictive as cocaine and gambling


We don’t always eat when we are hungry and are low on calories. Often, we eat for pleasure. Apparently, there are two kinds of hunger – “metabolic hunger” and “hedonic hunger”.  The term “hedonic hunger” was coined by clinical psychologist Michael Lowe in 2007. It is a powerful desire for food in the absence of any need for it. Hedonic hunger is one of the primary causes for increasing obesity in the developed countries.

Reward circuit

In recent years, researchers have come to understand how certain foods – particularly fats and sweets – change brain chemistry in a way that makes people overeat. Brain-imaging studies and experiments with rodents have revealed that hormones activate a region of the brain known as the reward circuit. It turns out that extremely sweet or fatty foods captivate the brain’s reward circuit in much the same way that cocaine and gambling do.

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 the food touches the tongue, taste buds send signals to the brain, which in turn responds by releasing the neurochemical dopamine. The result is an intense feeling of pleasure.

Frequent overeating of foods high in fat and sugar saturates the brain with so much dopamine that it eventually adapts by desensitizing itself. Consequently, the brains of overeaters demand a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same threshold of pleasure.

Beat the addiction

Two effective ways of tackling hedonic hunger are either keeping tempting foods out of the house or eating a less damaging alternative – such as, a fruit instead of dessert. Keeping treats in portion-controlled servings may also help.

Sleep-deprived people seem to eat well beyond their caloric needs, suggesting that they are eating for reward and pleasure. Similarly, when you are stressed, your body releases cortisol which results in cravings. So, getting enough sleep and reducing stress levels also helps in keeping hedonic hunger in check.


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