When it comes to our relationship with food, there is more to eating than just satisfying our basic physiological hunger. Hedonic eating, for instance, describes the experience of reaching for food not for hunger but for pleasure. Reaching for foods high in fat, sugar, or carbohydrates (‘hyper-palatable’ or ‘hedonic’ foods) can be a symptom of this type of compulsive eating.
Especially when faced with a feeling of fullness without satisfaction, we can find some answers in the intriguing concepts of hedonic eating and hedonic hunger. These terms refer to the pleasure-driven aspect of eating, where the pursuit of sensory gratification and enjoyment takes center stage over basic physical hunger.
Understanding hedonic eating and hedonic hunger provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between our brains, our bodies, and the foods we choose to indulge in. In other words, it’s the perfect topic within eating psychology to dive deep into.
What Is Hedonic Eating?
Hedonic eating is the act of eating for pleasure rather than for energy or true caloric needs. It involves seeking out ‘hyper-palatable foods’1 — which are those high in fat, salt, sugar and carbs — solely for the sensory pleasure they provide.
Highly palatable foods often have a high “hedonic rating,”2 meaning they possess qualities that trigger intense pleasure and reward when eaten. Hedonic eating is driven by the desire to experience the enjoyable sensations associated with specific foods.
The root word of “hedonic” is “hedon,” which comes from the Greek word “hēdonē,” meaning “pleasure” or “delight.” Hedonic eating is eating for pleasure.
What Is Hedonic Hunger?
Hedonic hunger encompasses the drive to eat for pleasure in the absence of true physical hunger. It goes beyond the physiological need for sustenance and taps into the innate human desire for sensory pleasure. Individuals experiencing hedonic hunger are motivated to consume foods solely for the rewarding properties and the pleasurable experience they provide.
Understanding Hedonic Eating: 5 Evidence-Based Reasons Why We Eat for Pleasure
In my video above, I discuss what hedonic eating is and, more importantly, why it’s important to keep digging beyond this phenomenon. While hedonic eating is a powerful phenomenon, as you will soon learn, I like to view it as a secondary type of emotional eating.
Just like there is a primary emotion behind secondary emotions, there is another primary type of compulsive eating behind hedonic eating. This is what I’ve seen, at least, in my work as an eating psychology coach.
As you explore the interesting science below that discusses hedonic eating, be sure to read through to the end to discover the steps you can take to address your psychology. It is far more powerful to address the primary motivations underneath.
1. Hedonic Eating is Influenced by Reward Circuitry and Food Addiction
At the heart of hedonic eating lies the brain’s reward circuitry, a complex network involved in the process of pleasure, motivation, and behavior reinforcement. When we consume highly palatable foods, this circuitry is activated. This leads to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.
Studies3 have highlighted the overlap between hedonic eating and food addiction. The research suggests that overeating hyper-palatable foods can induce changes in the brain’s reward circuitry, similar to what is observed in substance abuse. These alterations can drive addiction-like behaviors, leading to compulsive consumption of high-reward, hedonic foods.
If you’re interested in the brain science behind it, one key element involved in hedonic eating is the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.4 This includes areas of the brain involved in reward circuitry such as the ventral tegmental area5 and the nucleus accumbens.6
These areas of the brain responsible for reward and reinforcement become activated7 by the consumption of hedonic foods — reinforcing the desire to eat these foods and perpetuating the cycle of hedonic eating. Clinical evidence8 supports the theory of food addiction.
Keep in mind that the steps addressed later in this article are, in my experience, powerful enough to overcome the addictive qualities of hedonic foods. Before we get there, the science is interesting enough that we must keep digging.
2. Hormones and Peptides Reinforce the Desire to ‘Eat for Pleasure’
Within the realm of hedonic eating, certain hormones and peptides come into play — especially those associated with pleasure. One notable player is ghrelin, often referred to as the “hunger hormone.”
Although primarily associated with appetite regulation, studies9 have revealed that hedonic foods increase ghrelin. This suggests that our physical hunger begins to increase along with hedonic hunger, further reinforcing the pattern and even blurring the line between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Endocannabinoids, another group of compounds, also contribute to hedonic eating. These naturally occurring compounds interact with receptors in the brain involved in appetite regulation and the regulation of reward pathways.
Specifically, the compound in the brain linked to appetite regulation, mood regulation, and hedonic eating is the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol9 (2-AG). Research has shown that the consumption of food for pleasure is accompanied by elevated levels of both ghrelin and 2-AG, indicating their involvement in the pleasurable aspects of eating.
3. Hedonic Eating Is Just as Much the Avoidance of Stress as the Pursuit of Pleasure
Stress, both acute and chronic, has a significant impact on hedonic eating. When we experience stress, the body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which can influence our food choices and increase our susceptibility to hedonic eating behaviors.
Research10 indicates that our response to stress is related to hedonic eating. Specifically, individuals exposed to chronic stress may be more prone to seek out high-reward foods as a coping mechanism to alleviate negative emotions and enhance mood.
Stress can disrupt the balance of hormones involved in appetite regulation, such as leptin, the “fullness hormone,” and ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.” This can lead to imbalanced hunger and satiety signals and an increased drive for hedonic eating as the desire for pleasure and satisfaction overrides the body’s natural regulatory mechanisms.
4. The Hyper-Availability of Hyper-Palatable Foods
Additionally, the prevalence of hedonic foods in our modern food environment plays a significant role in hedonic eating behaviors. The food industry has capitalized on the hedonic appeal of certain foods by creating foods that are intentionally engineered to be hyper-palatable, irresistibly appealing, and therefore addictive.
Think of the Grand Mac, which is like a Big Mac but even bigger. At 860 calories, it contains more energy than one’s physical hunger might require. (Unless you haven’t eaten all day or worked out intensely — and in either case you should eat exactly what appeals to you when you’re hungry for the best chances of stopping compulsive eating.)
The Grand Mac’s high fat, salt, and carbohydrate content makes it hyper-palatable. McDonald’s even adds sugar unnecessarily to their foods, with the Grand Mac clock in 9 grams of sugar, to increase the hedonic impact of their food. Why does a burger need sugar?
Foods that combine high levels of fat, sugar, and salt stimulate the brain’s reward circuitry and trigger intense pleasure and cravings. It’s not just in your head — Big Macs taste really good.
In my work as an eating psychology coach, however, I’ve found that most people that struggle with compulsive eating have enough willpower to resist the hedonic nature of foods, even though they taste really good. This topic comes up so often in my work that I created an entire YouTube video about it:
I hope it convinces you that, while hedonic foods are tasty and irresistible, once you address your psychology, what’s irresistible becomes resistible.
5. Dieting Is Not an Effective Nor Sustainable Solution to Hedonic Eating
No one can blame us for falling into the hype of hyper-palatable foods. They are abundantly available in our society with fast food chains located on practically every street corner in urban areas. This is closely tied to why diets often fail in the long term.
When individuals engage in strict dieting or food restriction, they create a sense of scarcity and deprivation. This triggers biological and psychological responses that work against the desired outcome of weight loss.
Research11 has shown that when food intake is restricted, the “hunger hormone” ghrelin increases, resulting in intense cravings for foods that are high-calorie (i.e. often hedonic). This hormonal response is the body’s way of trying to ensure survival in times of food scarcity.
Consequently, the more individuals restrict their food intake, the more they crave hedonic food. This biological mechanism reinforces the cycle of hedonic eating, making it difficult to adhere to diets in the long term.
Clinical evidence12 strongly suggests that diets not only fail to promote sustained weight loss but can also increase the chance of weight gain. The linear “calories in, calories out” concept often employed by diets oversimplifies the complex mechanisms of the human body.
In the face of the hyper-availability of hyper-palatable foods, focusing solely on restrictive dieting is an unsustainable approach. This is why I prefer to focus on the psychological reasons for overeating in my line of work. Eating psychology is far more powerful and effective than dieting.
How to Stop Hedonic Eating Using Psychology
Now that we have explored the various factors contributing to hedonic eating, it’s time to delve into strategies for overcoming this pattern and developing a healthier relationship with food. By focusing on psychology and addressing the underlying motivations, you can find effective ways to stop hedonic eating.
1. Cultivate Joy and Pleasure Beyond Food
One powerful approach to combating hedonic eating is to shift your focus towards finding joy and pleasure in areas of life beyond food. Hedonic eating often stems from a desire to experience pleasure and satisfaction. By actively nurturing activities, relationships, and experiences that bring you joy, you can reduce the reliance on food for emotional fulfillment.
Take the time to identify the sources of joy in your life, whether it’s spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies, exploring nature, or pursuing creative endeavors. These activities can provide a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, offering alternative pathways to experience pleasure outside of food.
Not only is it emotionally fulfilling to find joy outside of food, but joyful activities can also stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for reward and reinforcement. This way, you’re not actively resisting hedonic foods. Instead you’re replacing the trigger in the “feel good” reward cycle.
2. Stop Making Hedonic Foods Off-Limits
Rather than viewing hedonic foods as off-limits or “bad,” it can be helpful to shift your mindset and give yourself permission to enjoy them when you’re physically hungry. Restricting your favorite foods often leads to increased cravings and a sense of deprivation, fueling the cycle of hedonic eating.
Many of us are afraid of gaining weight if we indulge in hedonic foods, and past experiences may reinforce this fear. As explained earlier, when we restrict our diet, we slow our metabolism and increase the desire for hedonic foods. Then, when we inevitably eat them, due to the reliable restrict-binge cycle, we have not yet healed our metabolism, which increases the likelihood of the very thing we are afraid of: weight gain.
Instead of perpetuating this frustrating experience, it can help to allow all foods and make sure to eat when you’re physically hungry and stop when you’re full. In my experience, the latter part is the hardest; and I have plenty of tools that can help such as my Stop, Drop, & Feel®️ method to stop binge eating. Due to the length of this article, I won’t delve into it here, but know that it’s an effective resource.
3. Address Any Limiting Beliefs Around Food and Social Dynamics
By exploring the evidence-based factors that drive hedonic eating, you have gained valuable insights into the intricate mechanisms behind this phenomenon. However, understanding alone is not enough to break free from the cycle of compulsive eating. It is through targeted psychological interventions that we can truly transform our relationship with food.
This is where my digital workbook, Why We Do the Things We Do, can help. It is designed to help you dig into the subconscious reasons for self-sabotage around food.
Why We Do the Things We Do is my most popular offering. Through prompts, examples, and introspective exercises, this workbook helps you identify and challenge the limiting beliefs that trigger self-sabotage around food. By shining a light on these hidden beliefs, you can gain clarity. After all, we cannot heal what we cannot see.
Getting Back to Feeling Normal Around Food
Our relationship with food is a complex dance between our physiological needs, psychological motivations, and societal influences. Understanding the concept of hedonic eating and hedonic hunger provides valuable insights into why we reach for certain foods solely for pleasure, even when our bodies are not physically hungry.
However, it is important to remember that we have the power to transform our relationship with food. By cultivating joy and pleasure beyond food, giving ourselves permission to enjoy hedonic foods in moderation, and addressing any limiting beliefs around food and social dynamics, we can break free from the restrict-binge cycle and develop a healthier approach to eating.
This article is by far one of my most popular. Originally written in 2019, I had a lot of fun updating it for 2023 with so much clinical evidence. If you were intrigued by what you read, you’re a great fit for my unique approach to stopping compulsive eating called Psycho-Spiritual Wellness. Learn all about it by downloading the free ebook below. It explains everything.
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