The Psychology of Food cravings

Hacking Hunger Part I

September 26, 2015 | By TheWellnessProject

Food. Is. Everywhere.

Research shows that we make over 200 decisions about food daily.

Food is available on most street corners and even while waiting in line at Old Navy. On the Staten Island Ferry’s main level, you can now purchase snacks at a floating convenient store, you know, just in case you’re in danger of starvation in the eternal 25 minutes from island to island.

Unfortunately, to add to the madness, our daily lives are primed for overeating and calorie excess.

Not only is this because the world in which we live has food in abundance and at incredible convenience, but also because of the physiology of our bodies. Our world has evolved from wild berry picking and occasional beast hunting, but in some senses, our brain chemistry is stuck in those primal times of scarcity.

The brain is a crazy place.

While its impulses and synapses are meant to keep us alive and thriving, these days this disconnect with our environment causes wires to get crossed.

Back in the day, we had hunger cues and cravings to let us know what our bodies needed -- more of that fatty beast meat, more of those sweet berries, more energy. These days, our confused brains continue to give us those cues, even though food is much more readily available.

A common misconception is that everyone should just eat when they’re hungry, and that overeating is a problem harkening back to nothing more than a lack of willpower.

But, that’s a huge oversimplification of a complex bodily mechanism.

Hunger is the effect of a combination of hormones secreted within the body -- two important ones being ghrelin and leptin.

Ghrelin lets your brain know you’re in need of food, leptin lets you know you’ve had enough.

Sounds simple enough, but ugh! Wrong…

Many things contribute to the regulation of these hormones:

• Lack of sleep amps up ghrelin (meaning you crave more food).

• Simple carbs and processed foods cause excess secretion of leptin (the “feel full” hormone), which sounds like it should be a good thing, but so much of it overwhelms our receptors, then it takes more and more to actually feel that hormone’s effects - a condition known as Leptin Resistance.

• Dopamine (the “feel-good hormone”) is released when we eat fatty, caloric foods. The Pleasure Center in the brain (technically known as the nucleus accumbens, but, whatever…) becomes overstimulated causing your body to be less sensitive. Then, it takes more food to get the same pleasurable response.

All these factors lead you to want more and more and more... And all the Oreos in the free world won’t stop the stomach grumble.

Sorry to say, there’s more!

A host of environmental factors affect our food intake, too.

As children, most of us were fed food as a reward – “Be quiet, Timmy, and you can have the Cookie!” …

Later in life, that relationship with food continues, and a hard day or, conversely, an accomplishment are rewarded with something edible.

Emotionally, we self-sooth with that dopamine release from the things we eat, we procrastinate with food, we use it as a distraction, and we eat mindlessly, simply out of habit.

You don’t just have to take our word for it, serious science has taken on the case.

Studies show that our dining companion can influence how much we eat, moderating our intake within 20% up or down.

Another study proved that when presented with unending amounts of food, we keep eating despite our body’s cues -- Scientists gave two groups of people soup. Those eating out of normal soup bowls ate about nine ounces. Those eating out of self-replenishing, never ending soup bowls, ate on average 15 ounces. Some even ate more than a quart, and others didn’t stop until the 20-minute experiment was over! …Ah! When both groups were asked to estimate how many calories they consumed, everyone thought they had eaten about the same amount, and roughly 113 fewer calories than they actually had.

Clearly, when it comes to food, our brains don’t know everything.

And don’t think the food industry isn’t hip to all of these human mental hiccups. Packaging tactics and tiny serving sizes are tricks utilized by big food companies to keep us noshing and nibbling. And all those cleverly marketed Diet and Low Fat foods are simply depleted of needed nutrients and full off unhealthy, hormone disrupting ingredients.

While the outlook seems bleak, maybe the coolest part about Hunger is that if you’re keen to your brain’s games, you can effectively hack the system. There are ways in which we can work with our mental ticks to bend the body towards health, weight control, and an end to incessant snacking.

Read Next: Part II The Physiology of Snacking and Part III The Psychology of Over Eating in our ”Hacking Hunger Series" to find out how to work with your brain to fight the nagging urge eat like cookie monster on a hungover Sunday.