Shwetha Bhatia

The Science of Hunger

November, 2016
The Master Responds

Whether you're trying to lose weight, maintain your body weight, or just stay healthy, at some point you're going to get hungry. But simply eating whenever the urge strikes isn't always the healthiest response, and that's because hunger isn't as straightforward as you might think. A complex web of signals throughout the brain and body drives how and when we feel hungry. The drive to eat comes not only from the body's need for energy, but also a variety of cues in our environment and in pursuit of pleasures. It involves understanding your cravings and how to fight them, and how other lifestyle choices such as sleep, exercise and stress play a role in ‘how the body experiences hunger’.

To begin with, let's understand the difference between hunger and appetite. Hunger is the body's cue to eat while appetite is the amount of food one can eat.

HOMEOSTATIC HUNGER

This is the traditional concept of hunger which is triggered when you haven't eaten in several hours. Your stomach begins to grumble and you feel those usual bodily sensations associated with hunger. It stems from your body's need for calories – the need for energy prompts the signal that it's time to refuel.

Hormones in the body signal when energy stores are running low. This leads to rise in the levels of ghrelin, which get suppressed as soon as a person starts eating. As food travels through the body, a series of satiety responses (which signal fullness) are fired off; starting in the mouth and continuing down through the stomach and the small intestine. Different nutrients have different satiety values. Protein for example can make you full faster. Diets like the ‘Ketogenic Plan’ ensure that a constant supply of fuel is available in the form of ketones and thus less likely to make you feel hungry several times a day.

And up in the brain, another series of signals are at work. These are sets of opposing signals: the hunger-stimulating ("orexigenic") peptides, and the hunger-suppressing ("anorexigenic") peptides. They are hormones, responsible for telling the brain that a person needs to eat or that a person feels full. Studies suggest that there may be defects in these signals, causing people to overeat.

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