Eating for enjoyment or entertainment isn’t new. We often eat because food is available, it’s free, or we know it’s going to taste good, even if we’re not hungry. But researchers in Italy have identified a specific type of pleasure-driven eating they call hedonic eating. In a small study involving eight subjects scientists found that eating for gratification, rather than physiological hunger, triggers the release of hormones that up appetite, and therefore stimulate continued eating, even after satiety has been reached. In the study blood levels of hunger hormones surged after eating cakes, but not after eating bread, butter, and milk. While the connection isn’t completely understood, the hormonal reaction seems to occur with foods tied more closely with emotional, rather than physical, hunger.
I’m fascinated with this type of research because I devoted an entire chapter in my newest book to emotional eating. In my years of working with clients I’ve seen that losing weight or eating healthfully isn’t simply about nutrition knowledge or having the right plan or recipes. We’re practically taught from birth to turn to food to feel good or at least feel better, whether it be for comfort, reward, escape, or celebration. In my opinion understanding that connection is the foundation of transforming your relationship with food and untangling eating from emotions. But it’s important to acknowledge that there is a physiological component.
In another recent study published in Archives of General Psychiatry Yale researchers looked at 48 women who ranged from lean to obese. Each woman completed a standard food addiction assessment then, using MRI imaging, the researchers examined their brains when they were shown, and then drank, a chocolate milkshake. They compared these images to those after seeing, then drinking, a tasteless beverage. They found that both lean and obese women who scored higher on the food addiction scale exhibited brain activity similar to that seen in drug addicts. There was more activity in regions of the brain responsible for cravings and less in the areas that curb urges. For some people consuming, or even seeing, certain foods may trigger a physically driven need to eat.
So what can you do? There is no easy fix but the most important thing is to begin to understand your patterns. Start keeping a food diary to record your experiences, draw connections, and develop insights. In my practice I ask my clients to record not just what, how much, and where they ate, but also how they were feeling both physically (hunger/fullness) and emotionally before, during, and after meals.
This type of tracking may help you see that you tend to eat emotionally at particular times of the day, after interactions with specific people, or after becoming aware of certain emotions. When you see the patterns you can begin to change them, including testing out non-food coping mechanisms, or garnering support when you’re about to face triggers you can’t avoid. It’s not easy, but change is possible.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.