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The truth behind hunger pangs

Do you need food or is it just a desire to eat? Telling them apart can be very hard. Can you tell if your body is simply in need of fuel, or whether it’s craving food like a drug? Find out in this two-part series by Shikha Sharma.

brunch Updated: Oct 11, 2014 20:07 IST
Shikha Sharma
Shikha Sharma
Hindustan Times
Shikha Sharma,Hunger,Appetite

As you read this on this Sunday morning, are you hungry? If you are, do you know why? It’s a complex question. Our appetites are stimulated by two factors: need and desire. And telling them apart can be hard.

You need to eat when your stomach is empty and your body is crying out for fuel. But your desire to eat can be triggered by any of dozens of things. But it’s mostly motivated by a search for pleasure.

The need to eat
Your empty stomach stimulates a hormone called ghrelin that makes you hungry. Simultaneously, as your blood sugar drops between meals and the level of insulin in the bloodstream drops, your brain receives a signal that tells it you’re low on fuel.

Your empty stomach also makes this clear by churning and rumbling.

Hungry people who are not fed as soon as possible tend to get angry, as stewards in restaurants and domestic help know very well. This is because the anger centre and satiety centre in the brain are located close to each other. This might be a holdover from the period when we were hunter-gatherers, and hunters had to be aggressive enough to kill for food.

Also read: Are you always hungry?

Research shows that when the satiety centre in the brain is removed during surgery, the patient becomes a voracious eater. This is because the hunger hormones are no longer regulated by the satiety centre. This hunger can lead to violent rages and patients with this condition die of over-eating.

The desire to eat
Since our appetite is also influenced by emotions, it is evident that hormones other than ghrelin are at work.

Food, for many people, is a way of stimulating pleasure. We often eat even when we do not need to. Science calls it the dopamine reward system. Any food that is refined and has added sugar, salt and fat, becomes as addictive as a drug.

Also read: Curb hunger pangs

Obesity researchers believe that the brain cells of the obese may be resistant to the hormone that regulates the fat stored in the body. So how can you control your appetite? Find out next week.

(To be continued)
This is part one of a two-part series.

From HT Brunch, October 12
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First Published: Oct 10, 2014 18:24 IST