The Low Down on Hunger: Health, Hankerings and Habits

Perhaps you’re stuck in an afternoon meeting after having skipped lunch to finish off a project. You can feel your glucose levels plummeting twenty stories. Your stomach is making noises reminiscent of Sasquatch depictions. Your concentration is quickly waning, and that donut your co-worker is eating across the room suddenly has you locked in and drooling like Pavlov’s dog. (Why does he get to eat now?) You glance at the clock, and it seems like an eternity separates you between the droning lecture of the moment and the chef’s salad waiting in the office frig.

Hunger, as you’ve probably imagined, has both physiological and psychological bases. On the physical side, there’s the decrease in glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar), which initially causes you to feel unfocused and eventually leaves you helpless and sloth-like in your desk chair. It’s even possible that your body temperature has dropped subtly as a result of several hours without food.

As your energy dips, the hypothalamus in your brain sends chemical messages to your stomach and intestines to start the flow of acids and digestive juices. (Fido clearly expects to be fed at this point.) The release of the fluids and their subsequent activity are often what cause that monstrous clamor in your stomach – the one that you try (in vain) to conceal with a well-timed clearing of throat or repositioning in your chair.

Fast forward an hour, and there you are with a full belly and happier disposition. Your current satiety is linked to both the brain (that hypothalamus dude again) and the stomach. The stomach is usually the first one to say uncle. Even if we’re technically full, however, doesn’t mean we’re fully satisfied. Perhaps that same coworker walks by with yet another donut. (Man, is he running a Dunkin D franchise out of his cubicle or what?) Even though you just ate an enormous salad, that donut is suddenly calling your name.

Two forces might be at work here. On one hand, there is an apparently biological urge to satisfy the various “tastes” we have as humans: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). Perhaps you better pack some fruit next time. Though cravings are mostly psychologically associated, some research shows that appetite satiety is linked to these tastes as well as to a rise in glucose and stomach expansion. A simple explanation for this potential biological instinct may be our ancient ancestors’ natural impetus toward a varied diet.

On the other hand, your hankering might have nothing to do with real hunger. The smell, sight, sound and even thought of particular foods have the power to trigger the chemical process associated with hunger. Though you just ate lunch and have no real need for that donut (Do any of us really?), the sight triggers an all-too-pleasant memory of its taste, smell and texture. Advertisers frequently tap into these food associations with suggestive close-ups, amplified sounds, rising steam, hazy backgrounds and warm lighting. Downright disgraceful!

Besides the sensory impulses, there are plenty of other external factors that influence a person’s psychological perception of hunger – and satiety. It’s common to feel hungry at typical mealtimes, even if you’ve recently eaten. Studies show that people who are obese responded to this association more than those subjects who were not obese. Researchers have also found that people tend to eat more in social settings than they do alone. (I guess there’s a good reason to eat alone in the lunch room.) Higher food intake has also been linked with everything from larger plates to a wider variety of available food. Healthy Diet Tip: Skip the buffet.

SuperFantastic Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

5 Tips to Avoid Temptation

A Case for Starvation?

Waisted: Emotional Eating

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