Hedonic Hunger and Weight Loss

Hedonic Hunger and Weight Loss
By Heather Hamilton, PhD., LMHC, NCC, DCC  |  ©2022BreakThrough!

Fat, Sugar, and Weight Gain

Hedonic hunger describes the desire and drives to eat for pleasure in the absence of an energy deficit [1]. In other words, eating for gratification and not a necessity! For this blog think of “hedonic” as “hedonistic,” a pleasurable but naughty, self-indulgent behavior.

Most often “hedonistic” consumption correlates with a (negative) emotional state. It’s an indulgent response to frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness, boredom, resentments, feeling overwhelmed, etc. These emotional states are generally unpleasant and distressing and result in a strong desire (motivation) to change how we feel.

Food and Opiates

When it comes to changing our feelings there’s not a lot of difference between eating (carbs & sugar) for pleasure or taking painkillers. In different ways, they stimulate the (feel good) mu-opioid receptors (MOR) in the brain. Without going into too much detail,

  • The MOR system plays a significant role with regard to hedonic eating behavior and reinforces our emotional responses to appetizing foods.
  • Dysregulation of the MOR system contributes significantly to the development of binge eating disorders [2].

So why are unhealthy high-fat foods so appealing if they’ll ultimately kill us? Once again it goes back to the survival of our species.

The FAT AGE Embraces Hedonistic Eating

Fatty foods have been highly desired throughout evolution. They have a high hedonic rating and in part, this is because dietary fat is the most concentrated source of energy. Want to chase down dinner for the month? You need energy! Fat also contains nutrients essential to growth and development [3]. The problem is the biological mechanism that once ensured our survival hasn’t evolved to keep pace with the emergence of the FAT AGE (technically referred to as our obesogenic environment). (For more on this read: evolution and food.)

As a consequence of the FAT AGE, the evolutionary adaptation of storing energy in fat cells is now a dangerous liability [4]. Energy-dense foods are potentially harmful to human health because of their unbalanced contents and capacity to promote overeating behaviors [5, 6]. The overconsumption of hedonic foods causes disruption of energy balance (homeostasis). This imbalance in turn negatively affects our brain reward circuitry [7] and we either eat more than we had planned or…eat things we know aren’t good for us.

It’s highly likely that for most of us, hedonistic eating has emerged as the dominant drive with regard to how and what we eat. It’s clear that our preferences have shifted toward “energy-dense nutritionally poor” foods (4 words just to say JUNK nicely?) that are deliberately formulated and marketed to promote overconsumption in the absence of hunger [8]. As we all know, relentless fast food advertising (based on Pavlov’s response conditioning) makes it nearly impossible to avoid exposure to hedonic cues and triggers. We are, however, more evolved than our canine friends who hear a bell and think food.

Eating to Maintain Homeostasis

Homeostasis is a balance or the tendency of a system to try and maintain (or return to) internal stability in response to things that disturb normal functioning. In the human body cells, tissues, and organs promote proper function and regulation to maintain balance. We’re not going to dive in too deep here but this balance is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways throughout the brain and body. For our purposes though, energy homeostasis is achieved when metabolism is in long-term balance [9].

At the nutritional level, Metabolic Disorder or weight gain is caused by an imbalance of energy intake and energy expenditure [10]. Consuming more food than our body needs causes weight gain. Maintaining homeostasis requires moderating our caloric intake and nutrition to match our anticipated expenditure of energy in a given day. Losing weight necessitates a reduction in caloric intake. Calories (a measure of energy) come from several sources, predominantly fat, carbohydrates, and protein.

This discussion is just one of many from the BreakThrough! course and workbook. For more information please browse the articles and resources. If you’re ready to make a change, schedule your BreakThrough! consultation.


      We hope you have enjoyed this article from The BreakThrough! Program.

References & Related Topics from Great Authors

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  1. Witt, A. A., & Lowe, M. R. (2014). Hedonic hunger and binge eating among women with eating disorders. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(3), 273-280. doi:10.1002/eat.22171. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-08228-008

2. Ziauddeen, H., Chamberlain, S. R., Nathan, P. J., Koch, A., Maltby, K., Bush, M., & … Bullmore, E. T. (2013). Effects of the mu-opioid receptor antagonist GSK1521498 on hedonic and consummatory eating behaviour: a proof of mechanism study in binge eating obese subjects. Molecular Psychiatry, 18(12), 1287-1293. doi:10.1038/mp.2012.154. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23147384/

3. Weltens, N., Zhao, D., & Van Oudenhove, L. (2014). Where is the comfort in comfort foods? Mechanisms linking fat signaling, reward, and emotion. Neurogastroenterology and Motility: The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 26(3), 303-315. doi:10.1111/nmo.12309. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24548257/

4. Erlanson-Albertsson C. (2005). How palatable food disrupts appetite regulation. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2005 Aug;97(2):61-73. doi: 10.1111/j.1742-7843.2005.pto_179.x. PMID: 15998351. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15998351/

5. Berthoud, H. R., Lenard, N. R., & Shin, A. C. (2011). Food reward, hyperphagia, and obesity. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 300(6), R1266–R1277. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00028.2011 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21411768/

6. Egecioglu, E., Skibicka, K. P., Hansson, C., Alvarez-Crespo, M., Friberg, P. A., Jerlhag, E., Engel, J. A., & Dickson, S. L. (2011). Hedonic and incentive signals for body weight control. Reviews in endocrine & metabolic disorders, 12(3), 141–151. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11154-011-9166-4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21340584/

7. Rossetti, C., Halfon, O., and Boutrel, B. (2014). Controversies about a common etiology for eating and mood disorders. Front. Psychol. 5:1205. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01205 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25386150/

8. Behary, P., & Miras, A. D. (2014). Brain responses to food and weight loss. Experimental Physiology, 99(9), 1121-1127. doi:10.1113/expphysiol.2014.078303 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25210111/

9. Ferreira de Sá, D. S., Schulz, A., Streit, F. E., Turner, J. D., Oitzl, M. S., Blumenthal, T. D., & Schächinger, H. (2014). Cortisol, but not intranasal insulin, affects the central processing of visual food cues. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 50311-320. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.09.006. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25265284/

10. Werthmann, J., Roefs, A., Nederkoorn, C., Mogg, K., Bradley, B. P., & Jansen, A. (2011). Can(not) take my eyes off it: Attention bias for food in overweight participants. Health Psychology, 30(5), 561-569. doi:10.1037/a0024291. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21767019/