I’m Hungry

In this two-part series, I cover two important sources of hunger.  In part 1, called I’m Hungry, I discuss the pleasure quota.  In part 2, called I’m Hungry Too, I will discuss classical conditioning.

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Hunger is a lot like pain—it’s hard to ignore.  Some people can ignore it.  Some people don’t even notice it.  But for others, it is an intensely aversive, distracting desperate sensation that nags at the very core of you.  Why are we so hungry?

I moved to Chicago for a job several years ago and gained 10 pounds in the first year.  Ugh!  The average adult gains maybe 1 pound a year, making 10 pounds…umm… a smidge more than that.  I blame hunger.   Well, maybe it’s not that simple.  I was new to the city, having moved away from friends and family, and I didn’t love the new job.  It was the kind of work where effort doesn’t necessarily lead to results, thankless at times, and boring at times.  I found myself looking at the clock all day in anticipation of going home.  I snacked a lot at work and it was in part to get through the day.  I snacked a lot in the evening too.  I felt like this was one of the hungriest times of my life.  Isn’t that strange?  Why was I so hungry then?

Food is naturally a source of pleasure, primarily because if it wasn’t pleasurable, we might avoid food or forget to eat and then eventually starve to death.  Basically, we like it because we need it.  Food stimulates pleasure centers in the brain, stimulating “feel good” chemicals called neurotransmitters.  In fact, food stimulates the same brain areas as drugs, although drugs have a much stronger effect.  Food and drugs are not the only things that stimulate our pleasure centers though.  Having fun does.  Laughing, enjoying yourself, doing something you love.  Smiling.  🙂 Any pleasurable activity you engage in does.  I conducted a study to look at whether the number of pleasurable activities people have in their lives was related to their weight (Pagoto et al 2006).  Turns out, it WAS.  Having few pleasurable activities in life was associated with a higher probability of being overweight.  I realized this was happening to me in Chicago.  I had left my family and friends behind for a job I didn’t like.  I was defaulting to food.  Many of the patients I treat for weight loss report a similar experience.  Eating can become the only moment of “pleasure” of the day.

We each have a personal pleasure quota that we strive to reach in one way or the other, if not through life experiences, then through food, smoking, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc.  Hunger can become part of our pursuit of pleasure, not so much a sign of an empty stomach, but more a sign that the pleasure centers need to be tapped.  If this sounds like something you may be experiencing, diet alone will not be helpful to getting control over your hunger.  Dieting will feel intolerable because all it does is just take this pleasure away, leaving you with…well….not much.   The true key may be in raising your pleasure quota, which means figuring out how to increase the pleasure in your life in general.  Time to push that pleasure button.

Think of the different aspects of your life in the list below (work, significant other, friends, etc).  On a scale from 0 (not at all pleasurable) to 10 (extremely pleasurable), rate how much pleasure you experience from each on an average day by circling the appropriate number.  Then, on the same scale of 0 (not at all stressful)  to 10 (extremely stressful), rate how much stress you experience from each on an average day.   Next, in the space next to each area of life, write in your ranking of the areas of life from MOST (#1) to LEAST important (#6), in terms of how much you need that part of your life to be fulfilling.

~~~~~RATE YOUR LIFE~~~~~

Work _____

Pleasure   0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Stress         0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Significant other    _____

Pleasure   0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Stress         0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Family   _____

Pleasure   0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Stress         0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Friends     _____

Pleasure   0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Stress         0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Hobbies     _____

Pleasure   0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Stress         0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Spirituality   _____

Pleasure   0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Stress         0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Check out your ratings.  Are there some areas of your life that are rated higher in stress than pleasure?  Is this the case for most of them?  For all of them?   What pleasure and stress ratings did you give for the areas of life that are most important to you (your top 3)?   Be honest, nobody is looking!   If stress is outweighing pleasure, consider that your hunger and overeating might be a signal that you are in need.  Pleasure deficient.  Pick an area of your life that is important to you, and work on increasing that pleasure rating.  Is there something that needs to be improved or fixed?  A change that needs to be made?  A new experience to be had?  A dream it is time to fulfill?   Make a plan.  Start with small changes and keep building.

If you feel as if no changes can be made to an important area of your life that is low in pleasure and high in stress, it might be helpful to brainstorm with a close friend or even a counselor on how to improve this part of your life.   More often than not, something can be done.

Out of control hunger may be less about your body and more about your life.   Most people know what to do in terms of diet and exercise, but  “life” just gets in the way.  Every “big loser” (one who lost and kept off large amounts of weight) I have ever encountered has said the same thing:  “I changed my life.”  If you are invested in losing the weight, set aside your diet and exercise plan for a moment, and ask yourself this…

What is my big life change?

 

Pagoto SL, Spring B, Cook JW, McChargue D, Schneider K. High BMI and reduced frequency and enjoyment of pleasant events. Personality and Individual Differences 2006;40(7):1421-31.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Susab Bakke says:

    great insight Sherry..yes I totally agree that the hunger signal is just that a signal..fill your life with pleasurable activities, reduce the stress in your life, surround yourself with loving, caring people and it could be the missing link…and you may not want to overeat!!!

  2. Tomasz says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Theresa! Most of the time, wedeknes are the busiest time of all for me. I’ve been hoping to have time to drive to the park and take some spring pictures. This Saturday is supposed to be sunny and 70b0 so I hope to slow down long enough to do it.I hope you have a pleasurable slow-paced weekend, too!

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