If you’ve ever found yourself craving a slab of chocolate, not because you’re hungry, but because you want it – it could be your body giving into its inner ‘hedonic hunger’ (and the real reason why you can’t resist that second slice of cake).
Italian scientists from the University of Naples discovered that when food is eaten for pleasure rather than hunger, the ‘reward’ chemicals in the brain are activated, making the body desire foods based on how they taste, rather than as an energy source.
This ‘hedonic hunger’ stimulates overeating and researchers believe it could play an important role in rising obesity levels.
To demonstrate this, researchers enlisted the help of eight healthy participants and fed them their favourite food during what they called the ‘hedonic process’. They later asked participants to eat less palatable foods and examined the results.
They discovered that the reward mechanisms in the body (a chemical called 2-AG and hormone called ghrelin) significantly increased during the hedonic eating process.
“Hedonic hunger may powerfully stimulate overeating in an environment where highly palatable foods are present, and contribute to the surge in obesity,” lead study author Palmiero Monteleone said in a statement.
"Understanding the physiological mechanisms underlying this eating behaviour may shed some light on the obesity epidemic."
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This study follows separate research by Georgetown University Medical Centre, which discovered a ‘gluttony gene’ scientists believe might be responsible for compulsive non-stop eating.
In laboratory tests on mice, researchers discovered the Bdnf gene mutation failed to transmit the message to the brain that signals when the body is full.
Two key hormones, leptin and insulin, release chemical signals that activate neurons in the hypothalamus region of the brain to signal when the body is satiated.
In the mice with a mutation of the Bdnf gene, the neurons were not activated and therefore their food cravings continued. As a result, the mice ate twice as much.
The researchers hope the findings, published online in the journal Nature Medicine, could help with the treatment of obesity.