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An explanation for that feeling of insatiable hunger

When was the last time you asked yourself what drives your appetite?

Never, that’s my guess. It’s just an automatic response we take for granted. For most, the transition from satiety to hunger takes about three to four hours. Satiety being the state where you feel satisfied by the amount of food eaten. A state, that for some, is unrelatable.

As with everything related to bodily function, insatiable hunger is not only complex, but individualistic, and real. For the person experiencing it, it’s a frustrating conflict of the mind and body. The drive to eat becomes all-consuming, regardless of what the logical mind knows about adequacy of food intake.

The complexity lies in the many psychological and biological feedback mechanisms related to hunger and satiety. Are you up for an experiment to better understand this? First, rate your hunger level on a scale of 1 to 6, one is starving/almost ill, three is starting to feel hunger, and six is Thanksgiving full/stuffed.

Next, surround yourself with food. Go to the kitchen, open the fridge and pantry, smell something delicious and taste your favorite food. How would you rate your hunger now?

What you just did was create a food cue through the anticipation, sight, smell and taste of food. In response to cues, the brain reacts to varying degrees, depending on the individual. If you didn’t feel hungrier after the cue, it’s likely your reward system is not wired to respond strongly. At least not to food.

For those who did notice a difference, the opposite may be true. As a result, reward centers in your brain received increased blood flow and neuronal activity. In essence, anticipating, seeing, smelling and tasting food excited you and subconsciously promised pleasure for acting on it. It’s a tough message to ignore.

Interestingly, those with insatiable hunger not only receive a stronger reward signal, but it lasts longer. Hence, the reason for feeling as though satiation is unattainable.

The exact location of the stimulus within the brain also makes a difference. Imagine your brain as a huge organization with many departments, or regions, each having a different function. If a specific department is stimulated, it can affect higher order thinking, such as attention control, working memory and decision-making. Recognize that eating requires some degree of control and decision-making.

Of course, that’s only part of the feedback system. The rise and fall of blood sugar (glucose) and insulin levels, stomach size and hormones all have an impact on hunger and satiety. Additionally, nutrients in the food you eat provide short- and long-term influence.

Like I said, it’s complex.

What it’s not, is an impossible course to alter. It’s a discussion to have with your medical provider as treatment can range from bariatric surgery, to medication, to behavioral therapy, to food-based approaches or a combination of these.

If you’d like to start with food-based approaches, here are a couple of pointers. First, don’t deny yourself pleasurable foods. Your highly trained reward system will reject that plan. Do begin including foods that are high in fiber and protein. These nutrients encourage satiety. Strategic snacking to prevent fasting may also help. The key is to choose foods high in fiber, high in protein and low in calories. Examples include beans (whole bean or dips), fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meat.

Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at nicole.clark@colostate.edu or 382-6461.

Nicole Clark