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physiology of hunger hormone changed by how we FEEL about the food

Posted by on Sep 26, 2011 in Blog Posts | 18 comments

I could also title this post, “my new favorite study.” Why? Because it is a hormonal, measurable, lab-value kind-of-thing  (that should intrigue some doubters) that contributes to our understanding  of why diets, no– not just diets– but “sensible” eating and likely even grudging “moderation” doesn’t work. When I talk to folks and tell them that in a study of teens, even “healthy” weight maintenance or weight loss tactics such as pushing more fruits and veggies, moderation, watching what we eat etc. resulted in heavier teens with more disordered behaviors, I often get asked, “but why?” Moderation, you see, seems so, well, moderate, but moderation to most people around food means eating less than they want in terms of quantity or perceived enjoyment.

Why? Because when we feel “sensible,” or deprived, this study shows that we may feel less satisfied, and that an actual hormone reflects levels associated with hunger. “Sensible” mindset= levels associated with hunger. Let me clarify.

The goal of the study: “To test whether physiological satiation as measured by the gut peptide ghrelin may vary depending on the mindset in which one approaches consumption of food.” ( The effect of ghrelin is “to produce the sensation of hunger and motivate consumption.”)

The findings: “The mindset of indulgence produced a dramatically steeper decline in ghrelin after consuming the shake, whereas the mindset of sensibility produced a relatively flat ghrelin response. Participants’ satiety was consistent with what they believed they were consuming rather than the actual nutritional value of what they consumed.

So, they were given the same shake, told one was sensible and no-fat, on another occasion told it was a rich, creamy, fatty, indulgent shake. First-off, guess which one they thought tasted better? What was a novel finding, was that despite the same shake, calories, fat, and nutrients, what the study participants thought about it effected the physiological, measurable response. Indulgence meant lower ghrelin, meaning more satisfied, and presumably, less hungry. “Sensible,”  (aka deprivation) meant that the ghrelin level did not fall. So, in spite of the same intake, these sensible shake drinkers had higher ghrelin levels.

Conclusions: “The effect of food consumption on ghrelin may be psychologically mediated, and mindset meaningfully affects physiological responses to food.”

“Mindset meaningfully affects physiological responses to food.”

Or, put another way, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” – Ellyn Satter

Anyway, I remember a study that did the same thing, that is same shake, one labeled indulgent, the other low-fat,  but looked at functional MRI or PET scans. The result showed markedly different effects on the brain. Guess which made the pleasure centers light up? The participants who thought they were drinking the indulgent shake experienced more pleasure with the same shake than those who thought it was low-fat.  Another study had a similar set-up with full-fat yogurt. One group was eating the same yogurt labeled “low-fat” and they reliably ate more calories for the rest of the day, presumable to make up for those lost calories, also known as the “halo” effect, whereby even the label of “organic” makes people tend to consume more. (Flat ghrelin response perhaps part of the equation?)

So, for awhile, I have been convinced that when most folks are told something is healthy, or low-fat, or even organic, they don’t enjoy it as much, they miscalculate what they think they should be eating. They over-think it, try to eat based on cognitive, not internal cues. Should and shouldn’t muddies the waters, and now this ghrelin information gets thrown in too. So the thinking of the halo effect, and the cognitive miscalculations are on top of perhaps elevated ghrelin levels- that motivate consumption.

This is the first study I have seen that shows that there is a physiological mediator, if you will, for those thoughts. (If you know of others out there, please let me know.) That the thinking plays out on a hormonal level, and is why we have to get this head-game out of our eating!!

The great irony to me was the last sentence, “Perhaps if we can begin to approach even the healthiest foods with a mindset of indulgence, we will experience the physiological satisfaction of having our cake and eating it too.” Forehead slap. Why not approach all foods with indulgence and joy, and perhaps if we do indulge in a piece of cake and eat in a tuned-in way, we will feel satisfied both cognitively and physiologically. We can also feel that a ripe juicy peach is indulgent. When we reject the labels of “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy,” and it’s just the wonderful world of the variety of foods we get to chose from, when we think a little about nutrition in our meal planning so that we can meet our needs for hunger and fullness, and basic food group kind of thing, then we can begin to get the head-game off the table and eat based on what our mouths and bodies tell us, not our brains. (eating competence.)

I can see these folks now labeling fat-free fiber shakes as “indulgent and creamy,” but we won’t be fooled so easily, and in the meantime the trickery, the sales pitch won’t help…

What do you think? Where do you think this is headed? How do we begin to get the head-game off the menu?


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  1. Gail

    Please give the title/author/etc of the study! I want to read it!

  2. Jennifer Hansen

    Don’t bother removing it. I am not going to be an anonymous fattie anymore.

  3. Jennifer Hansen

    I guess I’m more eating-competent than I thought, because I also plan to eat what I enjoy (within the constraints of my budget and schedule) while considering the after-effects of what I eat. I’ve been working on this since I quit Weight Watchers.

    I recently realized that one of my old “trigger” foods, Fritos, isn’t a trigger anymore. (For people who were never in WW, a trigger food is something that you find yourself eating until it’s gone regardless of what you planned to eat or whether you are even hungry.) For years I struggled whenever it was in the house. I tried repackaging a standard-sized bag in serving sizes and allowing some every day, but it simply didn’t work–I ate every bit, even though I felt bloated, my mouth hurt from the salt, and everything tasted like corn oil for the rest of the day.

    Then I stopped dieting. I quit the endless dance of “I planned to eat a good meal–I’m eating Fritos instead–I feel so guilty but it tastes so good–I’m pleasantly full but so ashamed–I’m never buying Fritos again–might as well indulge now–urgh, there goes the last of the bag.” Instead I asked myself as I ate, “So, is the enjoyment you are feeling right now worth what you know is going to happen if you keep going?” Most of the time the answer was “No.” Sometimes it was “Yes, because I am ravenous, I don’t have time to fix myself something because I have three kids and a house to keep, and this is here and quick and filling, corn oil aftertaste be damned.” I kept on eating Fritos, but I found myself stopping after smaller and smaller servings, and eventually just nibbling a handful and feeling done. The bag in my cupboard right now has gone stale. This never happened before.

    Nothing is indulgent anymore. It’s tasty, filling, nicely creamy, piquant, hot and satisfying, crunchy, cold, chewy, savory, or sweet. And now that the indulgence factor is gone from the Fritos, I have discovered that I would rather have a nicely salted hard-cooked egg if I had time to make some earlier in the week, or some peanut butter on toast if I didn’t.

    • katja

      how did you do it? What were your resources that helped you make that leap? For me, Coke and any kind of chips were the same way. I’m happy to say that I too have gotten to the point where it’s just food, not indulgent or “bad” and that bag of tortilla chips often hangs around for a month… Yay for permission and tuning in!

      • Jennifer Hansen

        I lurked here and at other sites around the Web as I studied fat acceptance and HAES. I mulled over what I read, slept on it, struggled with it.

        At some point a passage from one of C.S. Lewis’s books floated into my consciousness and stuck. The gist of it was that the root of right action is asking the right questions and the questions we ask are themselves rooted in the premises we accept–so we had better be clear about what premises we accept. He was talking about religion, but I realized that his argument applies just as well to self-care.

        If I accept the premise, “The number on the scale (barring rapid gain or loss without apparent cause) is not a measure of anything meaningful,” then the questions I ask myself as I decide what to eat have to change. The questions I had been asking myself were, “How little can I eat without being driven out of my mind by hunger pangs and headaches? How can I eat something I really want without deviating from the assigned eating system? How do I cope with the guilt of once again having been too busy or sick to prepare the correct meals? When O when will I be thin?” But they came from a premise that was doing me good only tangentially–teaching me to pay attention to hunger cues and stay hydrated, for example, but always in the service of the number on the scale. So I slowly hammered out a list of new questions.

  4. Jess

    I feel that I eat a “moderate” and “sensible” diet, but OTOH, I refuse to eat anything that I don’t find delicious. I never choose the low-fat muffin or fat-free salad dressing or low-carb brownie or whatever, mainly because they taste awful. I also skip produce that is bland tasting. Even though I tend to go for the full fat/full flavor versions of things, but those things are already healthy– for example, I don’t skimp on butter or oil in preparing cooked or raw veggies (in my universe, extra virgin olive oil has no calories) and I do eat a lot of veg (ergo a lot of oil/butter). I enjoy treats also, including an almost daily dose of chocolate!

    All that being said, the healthiness of a given food is a factor in deciding what to eat. I mean, I generally prefer white rice, but sometimes choose brown rice to up the fiber factor (it’s also nice to just mix it up, sometimes). I consciously plan weekly menus that include vegetarian, chicken and fish dinners even though my family would happily eat sausage and steak every day. I also am conscious of eating enough fruit and veg throughout the day– in the short term, this may involve delayed gratification but if I go a day or two without eating fruit & veg, I don’t feel good physically (e.g. having a salad at lunch because I know we’re having chicken parm for dinner– NB: I don’t do that to “bank” calories, I just want to get in some veg knowing I won’t have any later ) . Same with snacks– the chips may look good, but I know an apple and some almonds will hold me a lot longer than the chips (of course, I do get the chips sometimes). Finally, I do often stop before I feel completely full because in my experience with my body, if I wait until I feel really full while eating, I’ll feel overstuffed ten minutes later– I usually take a break when I think I’ve had enough, enjoy the conversation, drink some water and wait; often I do continue eating, but often the break helps me realize I *am* actually full.

    I completely understand that obsession with calories, feeling guilty/virtuous about food and being obsessed with the healthiness of foods is not really helpful in managing one’s eating. That being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being conscious of the healthfulness of certain foods or certain behaviors. Also, many, many people were not raised with home cooking and fresh produce, so they don’t have a taste for it– Alice Waters famously thought she would educate some Oakland school kids about the pleasure of fresh, ripe peaches and was stunned when most of the kids had never seen a fresh peach, didn’t want to eat it (some were suspicious of the fuzz), and didn’t think it was all that good when they did try it. Unless the answer is “everyone just eat what they want, as much as they want” (which I don’t think you’re saying, are you? then there would be no reason for this blog) then there has to be some guidance (which is why Alice started the Edible Schoolyard project).

    So count me as someone who gets a lot of pleasure out of moderate, sensible eating.

    • Jess

      By the way, I think this study is totally consistent with other studies that show that satiety is more psychological than physical– e.g. the bottomless soup experiment and others that show people will eat larger quantities of food if environmental cues (e.g. an empty bowl, a smaller buffet tray, a smaller plate) are not there to clue them in. Same goes for larger versions of single unit items (e.g. muffins or bagels, which have grown to 4-5 times the size they were 30 years ago). Oliver Sacks wrote about a man who had lost his short term memory– his doctors found he could eat 4-5 lunches in a row before refusing food (because he couldn’t remember having just eaten). So, the evidence suggests people do a pretty poor job of evaluating their own fullness and evaluating the nutrient profile of what they are taking in.

      • katja

        Jess, some studies show that portion size or bowl size doesn’t matter, so that is a mixed bag of research (it seems that the studies that support internal regulation don’t get as much press. There was one about spaghetti a few years ago and another about plate size that I can look up if you’re curious.) 3 year olds can do it, but 5 year olds can’t. Is it that the skill is lost, or that the 5 year old has been battered and badgered enough to finish his plate and eat more (85-90% of parents pressure little kids to eat more) that she is no longer in tune with her internal signals?
        What is hard to parse out is how those people were fed as well. Someone who is not eating competent in terms of self-regulation will rely on external cues. I’d love to see those studies repeated on subjects who ARE eating competent!

    • katja

      Jess, I totally agree! Sounds like you are eating competent, and some can say you eat sensibly and in moderation. (I too probably would describe the outcome of my eating as moderation and sensible, but these words are too loaded in our current food culture, and too associated with deprivation in my mind. Remember, “a shake for breakfast and lunch and a sensible dinner?” There is nothing sensible about a shake meal replacement for the vast majority. )
      Part of being eating competent also means considering nutrition (your examples are excellent, like occsionally making brown rice though you prefer white, or thinking about your F and V consumption and planning to round out your variety.) Considering nutrition when meal-planning though is very different than allowing nutrition rules, or “moderation” to spoil eating, or muddy those waters so to speak.You eat what is delicious, you eat what many would say is “indulgent” (including fats and oils) you eat in a way that is tuned in to how your body feels. You are right, there is nothing wrong with being conscious of the qualities of foods. Just, for so many, we need to take baby steps, and any whiff of “shoulds” can really mess up eating, long before they even have a chance to tune in to their bodies. Does that make sense.? I am trying to answer this and have to go put the bread in the oven… Sorry it’s disjointed! (This is also the notion of the heirarchy of food needs. It is amazing. You are an apex eater. Others are working on it 🙂

  5. thunderbear

    Isn’t the indulgence side just as must of a skew as the sensible/low fat/organic side? Plus, it didn’t say that people enjoy food less when it is organic, just that they feel it is somehow healthier and they give themselves license to eat more. I do agree that viewing all food as a treat is a good attitude.

    I dunno. I guess I’m lucky in that I think healthy, real food typically tastes better than so-called indulgence like fast food, sugary baked things, etc.

    • katja

      See, here is where the mind-game of the “good” vs “bad,” and “healthy” vs “unhealthy” comes in. You assume, and I agree, that the cultural norm for “indulgent” is fast food, highly processed, high fat and sugar foods etc. I would say it’s mostly “indulgent” because it is a “guilty pleasure” heightened because we “shouldn’t.” (And that also brings in a mind game of deprivation, then overindulgence because darn it, it’s been a bad day, or I’ve starved myself all morning and I’m now ravenous and physiologically and psychologically craving carbs and fat.)
      To me, indulgent means something so good, it must be savored. I do think that fat, in general produces a velvety mouth sensation, so good ice-cream, or chocolate mousse feels indulgent, but so can a wonderful stew that you savor, or the soft cheese on whole wheat crackers. or fresh berries dripping with juice and ripe as can be. I think again, getting the nutrition mind-games and labeling off the table allows us to tune in and pay attention to what truly is indulgent vs a sneaky, guilty, “I’m being bad” kind of thing… So, I wonder maybe in phase two of the study ,they should just have a normal meal, “healthy” even perhaps in content but not labeled as such, then serve the same meal as a low-fat, high-fiber version. I wonder if instead of indulgence and deprivation, they set up just normal/enjoyable vs deprivation that we might see the same results. What I am getting at is perhaps it is the sensible, deprivation, not the indulgent that caused the difference. Does that make sense?

  6. Rodrian Roadeye

    “Take you a glass of water, make it against the law.
    See how good the water tastes when you can’t have any at all.”-CCR

  7. Twistie

    I think it has to start early. I know that I was raised being allowed to find things like spinach and Brussels sprouts every bit as indulgent as chocolate cake, and to this day they all satisfy me beautifully. I’ve long suspected that forcing certain foods down people for the sake of health is not nearly as helpful as it might appear on the surface. Now there’s an actual study I can point to.

    And wasn’t there one where two groups of women were chosen, one of Thai women and one of – I believe – Swedish women? When they were fed a meal of Thai curry, the Thai women absorbed more protein from the meal than the Swedish women did. When the meal fed the women was one of fish and potatoes in a more Scandinavian style, the Swedish women absorbed more protein. In short, it indicated that eating foods one is familiar with also seems to aid absorption of key nutrients. Another excellent reason to introduce small children to a wide variety of foodstuffs and cuisines!

    • katja

      Yes, Ellyn reviews those studies in Secrets and Child of Mine. Also, the same foods, pureed and eaten meant less absorption than enjoying the meal. It is, as you say so complex. It’s why I hate the increase in the food as health messaging, and how it starts ever younger!


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