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The Psychology of Appetite

Madhumita Neog | October 1, 2020
The Psychology of Appetite

The reason why most regressive or exaggerated diets fail in the long run is because they tend to overlook the emotional variables associated with obesity. There are some key factors involved in the psychology of appetite, which go beyond the simplistic explanations for the causes of obesity.

Some people develop a relationship with food that resembles drug addiction

Certain foods can activate the same regions of the brain that are affected by substance addiction. Sugar laden junk and saturated fats stimulate the reward centre of the brain in much the same way as heroin or cocaine does. It is yet to be established at which point exactly addiction crosses over with eating disorders.

Food is a natural reward. We do not eat merely for energy but also for pleasure. We like it, crave it and in some cases, get addicted to it. However, two phenomena linked with substance-based addiction – tolerance and withdrawal, are not commonly observed in the context of eating. Hence food addiction is more of a behaviour-based addiction. It is not the food that one is addicted to, but certain ingredients that go into it such as sugar, fats and sodium – all of which are used in the food industry to prolong shelf lives of packaged and processed foods

Emotional eating comes on with specific cravings

Early life experiences affect our food choices for life. Changes in eating behaviour are caused by a wide range of emotions – spanning both negative and positive. Unlike physical hunger that builds up over a few hours and can be satiated with a wide variety of foods, emotional eating is accompanied by guilt and often leads to further eating. In such cases, food offers an escape from stress; it is driven by habit and not hunger.

Our relationship with food begins in our mother’s womb with flavour exposures through the amniotic fluid. These influence our food choices well into our later years. If children are given sweets or ice cream when they are sad or as a reward for good behaviour, it establishes a thought association with that particular food item. This pattern carries itself forward into adulthood.

Moreover, stress alters our appetite and food choices making us crave for ‘comfort foods.’ The stress hormone ‘cortisol’ is linked to an increase in feeding behaviour and thus stress induced eating contributes towards weight gain. Perhaps that is why people consume more carbohydrates when stressed. Currently, studies are underway to disentangle the link between the neural pathways activated by fats and sugars and the stress response system.

Portion sizes can and do affect our eating behaviour

When bigger portions are served, they are consumed by default as though the appetite signaling pathway is hijacked by visual stimulus. A notable trend in recent years is for restaurants to serve bigger portions, encouraging people to eat more.

What is worth noting, is that, it is not just homeostasis that determines meal termination, but also the context of the meal. This includes the time, presentation and the environment. Food served at usual meal timings is consumed irrespective of actual hunger. And when the food is visually appealing, it naturally leads to more consumption.

The socio-economic status of a person determines what food is consumed

People from lower income groups consume more of energy dense carbohydrates that are cheaper than fresh produce. In fact, healthier food choices are difficult to adhere to for many communities across the world, particularly when they come from the lower socioeconomic strata of society. It has been seen that obesity affects more people who consume pocket friendly fast foods such as burgers and fries than compared to say, fresh fruits and salads.


Not too much and not too soon; aim for a gradual transition

Given the number of variables associated with obesity – physical environment, emotional health, socioeconomic status, early life influences, genetics and physiological mechanisms, the progression from overweight to obesity can be checked through steady and sustainable lifestyle changes. Elevated cortisol levels must be monitored to prevent any form of inflammation.

In addition, providing positive reinforcements to individuals helps them overcome obstacles to healthy weight management. If we can incorporate an exercise regime into our daily activities and swap snacks and desserts with fresh, wholesome foods, obesity is one battle than can be easily won.

Madhumita Neog

Madhumita is a certified nutritionist with over 10 years of experience in this domain. Certified by VLCC, India, Stanford University and the University of Edinburgh, she believes in leading by example. She is the founder of Mountain Feet Nutrition and her clientele includes super models, artists and professional athletes too.


Madhumita was the Fitness Ambassador in Fit Expo India 2019 and is a proud recipient of the International Women Achiever’s Award by the Press Club of India in 2019. Apart from being a lifestyle coach and weight management specialist, she is also a pageant trainer and an adventure buff who pursues high altitude trekking as a hobby. She sustained major injuries on one occasion, but her passion for fitness and trekking remains undiminished. She is also a philanthropist, helping backward communities in the Sunderbans.


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Aditi Chatterjee
Aditi Chatterjee
3 years ago

Highly informative and analytical.At the same time there are many doubts that assail one, when it comes to’ food fads’ like brown rice, quinoa and so on. Diet recommendations work better if they follow an inclusive approach, with modifications for those with specific health issues. Thanks for your valuable inputs.

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