The Psychology of Hunger
Life Style

The Psychology of Hunger


We require energy and nutrients for the functioning of our body. And these nutrients in our body come mostly from what we eat. Now what we eat and how much we eat mostly depends on hunger. Hunger is a psychological state defined by a desire to eat. Most research has been done on the physiological or biological factors of hunger. Though they do play a role, they don’t explain the psychological account for hunger and how memory impairment can lead to decreasing or even eliminating hunger. So now first let us look at the physiological mechanisms of hunger and eating.

There are many ways in which the body reacts to the need for eating or the basis of hunger. Our stomachs contract when they are empty, hence one can experience hunger pangs. Chemical messages are transmitted to the brain and act as a signal to stimulate eating behavior. Also, another reason is when our blood glucose levels drop, the pancreas and liver produce several chemical signals that stimulate hunger and initiate eating behavior.

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How Hormones and Brain Signals, Control Eating Behavior?

Eventually, most people when they have eaten experience satiation or fullness which stops the eating behavior. Similarly, like initiation of eating behavior, as blood glucose level increases the liver and pancreas send signals to the brain to stop the eating behavior. A satiety hormone called leptin is released to send the signal to the brain. The part of the brain that plays a crucial role in eating behavior is the hypothalamus. It is located in the lower central part of the brain.

It synthesizes and secretes various hormones responsible for hunger. The lateral hypothalamus is concerned with hunger and the ventromedial hypothalamus is concerned with satiety which is the feeling of fullness that leads us to stop eating. It has been found that damage to the LH can eliminate the overall desire to eat to the point of only force-feeding can keep them alive.

Also, Damage to VMH can cause people to overeat to the point of obesity. There is also work of hormones to send the required signals, hence the two-hormone peptide YY and leptin give out the signal of being full, and the hormone ghrelin is released when the blood sugar gets low or there are contractions in the stomach, responsible for experiencing hunger.

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Hunger And Memory

From the research we can differentiate two types of hunger, one is specific hunger, and the other is general hunger. Specific hunger is the hunger for specific foods, for example after watching an advertisement of a burger or pizza, you get an urge to eat it. It entails recalling episodic memories from consuming that food when an associated cue is encountered. General hunger is the hunger we experience daily like when it is lunchtime or the tummy rumbles. This type of hunger entails recalling semantic memory which then increases the expected pleasure of any food.

According to research published in the PubMed journal on the psychological basis of hunger and its dysfunctions, it was found that the medial temporal lobe memory system provides support for both hungers. Eating a Western-style diet can cause damage to this system, as can obesity and its implications over time. Medial temporal lobe memory loss can induce impairments in particular hunger, but most notably in general hunger, resulting in little motivation to eat foods with low-to-moderate palatability, such as fruits and vegetables.

Psychological Factors

We know that we don’t just eat sometimes to fulfill our basic nutrient requirements or just have food and feel satiated. Sometimes we crave specific foods, which is called specific hunger. Hence, we can say that our food choices are a complex mix of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. We have already seen the biological factors, now let’s see the Psychological factors.

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Psychology affects hunger in various ways, one of which is emotional eating. Many people resort to changes in their eating behaviors when under high emotions, like stressed, sadness etc. Some people skip meals or just eat much less compared to regular eating and some eat more. These people who eat more mostly resort to unhealthy high-calorie foods and hence may be at risk for obesity and other health conditions. Studies show that the stress hormone cortisol increases appetite for high-calorie and sugary foods. Apart from emotional eating, the brain also works on a reward system where eating some delicious food starts the reward circuit. The limbic system of our brain rewards the body with the hit of dopamine which further encourages this behavior. Another psychological factor can be body image and self-esteem.

Exploring Body Image, Eating Behaviors, and Disorders:

It has been found that people with body image issues or who are dissatisfied with their bodies tend to restrict eating. This restrictive eating can lead to binge eating later. Hence can cause various eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia nervosa etc.

Also, we can see that hunger is influenced by learned behaviors, like habitual eating. Over time we develop learned behaviors related to food and eating habits. Examples of habitual eating might be, snacking in front of the television or just eating out of boredom. Another learned behavior includes conditioned responses. Examples can be we experience craving or hunger for pani puri when we smell it on the stalls of the street.

Research on Hunger And Mood Related Food Craving

Research was conducted to examine the effects of hunger and satiety on mood-related food cravings. To investigate these effects on instantaneous food cravings, they used a food cue-reactivity paradigm in 33 normal-weight females (mean age = 25.1 years, mean BMI = 21.6). Mood (negative vs. neutral) and state of food deprivation (hunger vs. fullness) were systematically changed. Self-rated cravings were substantially higher in hungry versus sated states. Furthermore, in a neutral mood, high-calorie foods controlled appetite, with hungry and satiated participants prefer savory and sweet items, respectively. This difference between savory and sweet products did not exist in a negative mood. In summary, hunger has a significant impact on food cravings, which are further influenced by emotional state. Future studies should consider hunger to be of great importance for the impacts studied in food-related paradigms.

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In Summary

The psychology of hunger encompasses a multifaceted landscape that goes beyond basic physiological cues. Understanding hunger requires acknowledging the intricate interplay of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors that shape our attitudes, behaviors, and experiences related to food and eating. By adopting a comprehensive approach that addresses these diverse dimensions, we can promote healthier eating habits, mitigate food-related disorders, and foster overall well-being.


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