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How the brain controls our eating behaviours

The act of eating comes as a response to all kinds of cues:

  • internal : feeling hungry, feeling stress; and

  • external: seeing delicious food, celebration.

But all these cues tap into different parts of our brain. So let's look closer at the brain to better understand what eating behaviours might be controlled by us vs. what is out of our control, and just needs to be respected.


"I need to eat!"

Homeostatic eating means eating for physical hunger. This is controlled in the hypothalamus which received a bunch of hunger and fullness hormonal signals telling that "we NEED to eat". Such signals can be ignored for a bit but they are not going away - a bit like the need for a wee: yes we might be able to postpone going to the loo for a bit but the urge is only going to go crescendo. It is the same with physical/homeostatic hunger: we can wait a bit but the need to eat will stay and is going to grow stronger (do you ever feel "hangry"?)

So can we control physical/homeostatic hunger?

No we can't. But we can control how we respond to it. By listening to our hunger cues and not waiting too long before we decide to eat, we are in a better position to eat just the right amount to satisfaction and thus avoiding to overeat and be uncomfortably full.

The other aspect that is in our control is WHAT we eat. By eating a wide range of foods that will address the complexity of our nutritional needs, as well as foods that can make us feel full sooner and for longer (such as dietary fibre and proteins), we can delay the next rise of physical hunger.

"I want to eat!"

Hedonic eating is when we eat for pleasure. This is controlled in the mesolimbic system, also known as the "reward centre", which releases dopamine, and screams at us "We WANT to eat". The search of pleasure through food will vary from one person to another. Some of us are highly sensitive to food, while others are indifferent. Such traits are the results of both genetic predisposition and life experience. Babies show a more or less innate pleasure from sensory sensations around food. But a lot of the pleasure around food is acquired through our education and culture. How often, as a child, have you been rewarded with a lollipop, or comforted from a bruise with a chocolate bar?

Can we control hedonic eating?

To a certain extent yes. Or at least, we can certainly try as long as we don't deprive ourselves too much, too often (regular food restriction is considered as a disordered behaviour and can lead to an eating disorder).

If we are in search of a dopamine rush, it might difficult to override the urge to eat something delicious. But some time we just do it because we see the food and we think "yumm, that looks nice". In this case, it might be useful to 'challenge' this impulse by giving ourselves a bit of time to workout how much we really want that food. Rather than denying ourselves the food desired, we simply say "let's see if in 5 or 10 mins, I still want it". And if , 5mins later we still want it, we eat it.

But contrary to the physical/homeostatic hunger, there is no point turning to an apple or a handful of nuts if what we really crave for is a piece of cake! Because this is not what the brain is calling for - it's calling for a reward, not nutrients!

It might also be useful to ask ourselves why we are looking for pleasure at that point and whether there is an alternative answer (other than food) to address this search for pleasure.

In any case, let's remember that, when trying control what we eat, we need to consider our overall wellbeing, i.e. our physical and mental health.

Getting pleasure out of food from time to time is a wonderful thing and shouldn't denied. Here, having a flexible approach, combines with curiosity, will lead to better results than a set of rigid rules.

When we want to eat, it is a great idea to ask ourselves what sort of hunger we are experiencing: is it physical (for homeostatic eating ) or is it in search for pleasure (for hedonic eating)?

Physical? Let's feed our body what it needs then: a balanced and broad diet!

Pleasure? Let's bring our executive function into action and question whether we could answer our need for pleasure in a different way. Or if we challenge that need to eat by postponing it for a bit.

If you need help with your eating habits?

Whether it is for weight management or you're dealing with a difficult relationship with food - get in touch

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