Weight and Hedonic Hunger

The incidence of obesity continues to rise around the world in the face of a global food environment filled with highly palatable foods that trigger hedonic hunger.
Weight and Hedonic Hunger

Hedonic hunger refers to eating for pleasure rather than to satisfy a biological need. This results in food intake that can override the body’s homeostatic systems for controlling eating and lead to overconsumption of calories. Does how much you weigh affect hedonic hunger? A growing body of research suggests that the two are linked.

Weight Status and Hedonic Hunger
Hedonic hunger is driven by the signaling of hormones and neurotransmitters, including dopamine, and involves the reward centers of the brain. It has been suggested that the pleasure response to dopamine is dampened in obesity such that it takes increasing amounts of palatable foods to activate brain reward centers. The question is whether low dopamine or receptor levels contribute to obesity by causing an individual to eat more in a subconscious attempt to “feel good” or whether obesity leads to a dampened dopamine response. It has been shown that dopamine receptor levels in the brain increase after weight loss, leading researchers to propose that obesity may dampen dopamine response at the receptor level and that weight loss may correct it.1

Indeed, functional MRIs (fMRIs) show that reduced response to sucrose in dopamine-related regions of the brain is correlated with abdominal fat and BMI.2 Additionally, a 2012 study conducted at the Monell Institute found that obese women took longer than lean women did to get accustomed to a sweet solution, suggesting that this could contribute to delayed satiation, longer meal time, and overeating in obese women.3

Weight loss may actually accentuate hedonic response to orosensory stimulation. A group of successful weight loss maintainers demonstrated more activity in all brain regions after exposure to food stimuli than did obese and normal weight study participants.4 The implication is that successful weight loss maintainers may have to work harder to manage food intake and maintain weight loss in the face of a strong hedonic hunger response.

Changes After Bariatric Surgery
In contrast to weight loss by non-surgical methods, bariatric surgery does alter hedonic hunger responses. Compared to severely obese patients who had not undergone surgery, those with a history of gastric bypass surgery scored lower on the Power of Food Scale, which is a measure of response to highly palatable foods.5 Cravings for sweets and fast food also have been shown to decrease after bariatric surgery.6 These findings have been supported by a reported decreased desire to eat, along with fMRI studies showing reductions in brain reward pathway activity.

The Weight Watchers Approach

Weight Watchers provides members with tools and support for managing hedonic hunger as they move toward and maintain their weight loss goals.
Stephanie, although I agree with the info in the second sentence under The Weight Watchers Approach, there is no discussion of depression and hedonic hunger here so I recommend deleting.


Check out our Science Library or read more about Science and Weight Watchers.


1Berthoud HR. Metabolic and hedonic drives in the neural control of appetite: who is the boss? Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2011 Dec; 21(6):888-96.

2Green E, Jacobson A, Haase L, Murphy C. Reduced nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus activation to a pleasant taste is associated with obesity in older adults. Brain Res. 2011 Apr 22; 1386:109-17. Epub 2011 Mar 24.

3Pepino MY, Mennella JA. Habituation to the pleasure elicited by sweetness in lean and obese women. Appetite. 2012 Jun; 58(3):800-5. Epub 2012 Feb 2.

4Sweet LH, Hassenstab JJ, McCaffery JM, et al. Brain response to food stimulation in obese, normal weight, and successful weight loss maintainers. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012 May 9. doi: 10.1038/oby.2012.125.

5Schultes B, Ernst B, Wilms B, et al. Hedonic hunger is increased in severely obese patients and is reduced after gastric bypass surgery. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Aug; 92(2):277-83. Epub 2010 Jun 2.

6Leahey TM, Bond DS, Raynor H, et al. Effects of bariatric surgery on food cravings: do food cravings and the consumption of craved foods "normalize" after surgery? Surg Obes Relat Dis. 2012 Jan-Feb; 8(1):84-91. Epub 2011 Aug 9.