It's 2 hours post lunch, and as I open my laptop and resume work after much procrastination, I'm struck by an uneasy and familiar feeling of hunger. It makes me wonder what causes hunger or what motivates us to eat. After all, food is such an important part of our lives, and for people like me who live to eat, it is the reason for their existence! Have you ever considered the same thing? If so, let us embark on a journey that will answer all of our questions and put an end to our inquisitiveness.
Let us investigate the connection between the brain and hunger. I know it sounds boring, but I promise you that this information will keep you interested until the end. Food is the primary source of energy for our entire body and the way the human brain controls eating is a little complicated, but I'll do my best to simplify it for better comprehension.
Our brain's primary reason for eating is survival. The hypothalamus, which is located in our hindbrain, is in charge of regulating our appetite. There are neurons in this region that increase or decrease appetite and control our energy expenditure. Other body systems, in addition to the hypothalamus, play a role in regulating our food intake. The hypothalamus communicates directly with the reward, emotion, and memory systems when it receives external signals.
Aside from being perceived as necessary for survival, food is also viewed as rewarding and activates the reward pathways in the brain. This pathway is made up of dopaminergic neurons that respond to both visual food cues and food intake. You've probably heard of dopamine, also known as the "happy hormone." It mediates pleasure in the brain and stimulates one to seek pleasurable activity. Food, sex, and illegal drugs all stimulate dopamine release in the brain. So, when we eat, our dopamine levels rise, making us feel good and happy. As a result, positive reinforcement is used that ensures this action is repeated.
Our emotions have a significant impact on our appetite. Clinical disorders such as depression and anxiety are frequently associated with dysfunctional eating behaviours. When compared to fear and sadness, joy and anger increase appetite and lead to poor dietary choices. Many studies have discovered that these effects are more common in women than in men.
The main brain area that regulates food intake in response to emotions is the amygdala. Many studies have found that activation of the amygdala leads to the consumption of high-fat foods. Stress and the amygdala are also linked. Have you ever noticed how much you eat when you are stressed? The amygdala is in charge of most of this behaviour. When we are stressed, our bodies and emotions become dysregulated, causing us to engage in stress eating to relieve our emotions.
The cognitive control of our brain also regulates our appetite and the type of food we eat. As an example, a person on a diet will try to avoid eating a slice of pizza because it will jeopardise their progress. This indicates that the individual has strong cognitive control and can make sound decisions. A person with impaired cognitive control will make poor decisions and may consume more fat and calorie-rich foods.
That was the heavy stuff, where we discussed how the brain and its various areas influence our eating habits. Other factors, aside from evolution and survival, influence what and why we eat. When someone says, "I love to eat," it is not because they rely on food for survival or energy. These basic food requirements run in the background of our bodies. "I love to eat" is said by someone because food makes them happy, they are curious about different cuisines, they want to try new dishes, they like how certain foods taste and smell. Many studies show that our eating habits are influenced by a variety of factors such as culture, socialising, economic status, psychology, and so on. These factors have come into play because food is abundant, cheap, and available in a wide variety nowadays. Now, let's take a look at some of these elements.
When it comes to food, India has a cuisine for every state! From chole bhature to dal makhani, dosa, pao bhaji, vada pao, and everything in between! Every time you walk down the street, there is a food cart on every corner. We don't need variety because we have an abundance of it. However, as man became a cosmopolitan citizen and globalisation spread throughout the world, cross-cultural influence began, introducing new ways of living and eating. The western countries' influence on the eastern countries was particularly strong. As a result, you can now find every cuisine here that is available in the rest of the world. Isn't this one of the sweet miracles of globalisation?
This resulted in the emergence of a new class of people eager to try all of these cuisines. The introduction of foods like burgers, fried chicken, pizzas, and pasta piqued the interest of the younger generation. As a result of these new and lucrative food options on the market, consumers became more interested in food in general.
It is assumed that humans are social beings. Almost every day, we interact with people on a personal or professional level. When we meet up with friends, we usually do so in a nice cafe with good food; when we have a date, we go to a romantic restaurant with good food; and when we have a get-together, we look for a take-out or delivery restaurant with good food. Almost all of our socialising is accompanied by food, whether it's a quick cup of coffee or a lavish meal. Are you curious as to why? Because it is enjoyable, comfortable, makes us happy, and instils a sense of relaxation and contentment. Giving us another reason as to what causes us to eat.
We now understand what makes us want to eat when we are stressed, depressed, angry, happy, out socialising with others, or at home. Simply put, our brain, emotions, and a variety of other cultural and environmental factors all influence our eating behaviour, and they are all interconnected. So, the next time you're hungry, think about what's making you hungry; as for me, I'm going to go and grab a bite because, after all this writing, I'm famished! You can order your favourites too!
Macht M. Characteristics of eating in anger, fear, sadness and joy. Appetite. 1999;33(1):129–39.