ôô

The 3 Levers of Appetite

Researchers have identified three distinct neural pathways that control our desire to eat. Two rely on our desire to avoid discomfort. The third is all about pleasure. Understanding these three neurological triggers may help tame an out of control appetite.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #522
Hungry man reaching for brownie.

Avoiding Pain v. Seeking Pleasure

The first two levers of appetite (low blood sugar which increases the urge to eat, and a stretched stomach, which decreases the desire to eat) are what Sternson and Eiselt refer to as aversive signals. In both cases, our behavior (to eat or to stop eating) is triggered by the desire to relieve an unpleasant sensation. 

But the third lever, the presence of appealing food, is exactly the opposite. In this case, our response is governed by the desire to experience more of a pleasurable stimulus.

The first two levers of appetite seem purely functional. When an animal needs food, the pain of hunger drives it to seek nourishment. The discomfort of an overly full stomach prevents the animal from over feeding to the point of physical harm.

But the third lever, the presence of appealing food, is exactly the opposite. In this case, our response is governed by the desire to experience more of a pleasurable stimulus.

The third lever, however, is more hedonistic. In this case, the drive to eat is governed not by the physical need for food but by the availability of pleasure-producing foods. What’s the function of that?

Perhaps in a time of food scarcity, this may have served to motivate animals to take advantage of occasional nutrient or energy windfalls. But in an era where we are surrounded by an excessive amount of calories, many of which have been literally engineered to trigger our pleasure centers, our innate drive to consume tasty food is literally killing many of us.

But this insight can also help us take control. Knowing that the presence of palatable food is likely to provoke a strong drive to eat or keep eatingcompletely apart from our biological need for foodunderlines just how important it is to control our food environment, rather than rely on our willpower. And I have three practical tips for the willpower-challenged in episode #266. 

If you’ve got a question or comment for me, you can call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. I’d love to hear from you.

If you’re a nutrition or fitness professional or coach, you could be featured on the Nutrition Diva podcast AND win a free registration to the IDEA World Nutrition and Behavior Change Summit! Click here to learn how.

Hungry man image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Pages

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.