Hedonic Hunger – Liking and Wanting

Survival requires the body to balance calorie intake and expenditure. If hunger were controlled only by this homeostatic mechanism, humans would eat just enough to satisfy the calorie needs of their body.1
Hedonic Hunger

Once those needs were met, satiation and satiety would signal that eating should end. However, hedonic hunger, that is, eating for pleasure rather than for energy needs,1 drives humans to eat for pleasure rather than because of a calorie deficit.

Because today’s food environment is filled with highly palatable foods that trigger hedonic hunger, humans tend to override the body’s homeostatic systems for controlling food intake and to eat more calories than they require.

Eating for Pleasure
Hedonic hunger incorporates motivational (reward), cognitive, and emotional influences on eating.2,3 Palatable foods, particularly those high in fat and/or sugar, are often eaten in response to hedonic hunger – they are desirable as much for pleasure and satisfaction as for calories. The feelings generated by such foods reinforce the desire to eat them frequently.

Hedonic hunger and the resultant overeating have been compared to drug addiction. In response to hedonic hunger, an individual may feel a loss of control over starting and stopping eating, become overly focused on eating, and require increasing amounts of food to satisfy the urge to eat. Hedonic hunger, as well as eating and satiety, are thought to be influenced by dopamine, leptin, serotonin (5-HT), noradrenaline, opioids, gamma aminobutyric acid, and others.

The Liking and Wanting of Hedonic Hunger
Liking and wanting are both generated by the body’s hedonic neural systems and mediated by hunger that arises from the need for calories. Liking refers to the pleasantness of a food. Individuals tend to like foods more when they’re hungry – caused by activation of certain neurotransmitters and hotspots in the brain – and like them less when they’re satiated. For example, the sweet taste of a food may become less pleasant with eating, even though the sweetness of the food has not changed.4 The drop in liking has been shown to be accompanied by reduced activation in the mid-anterior orbitofrontal cortex of the brain.5

Wanting is generated by reward mechanisms. Activation of reward centers in the brain in combination with the presence of food or food cues can increase “wanting” for a particular food even though the degree of “liking” has not changed. Reward cues stimulate dopamine response, as does food restriction, which influences degree wanting.

Liking and wanting rarely turn off. They readily respond to food cues and other environmental factors that lead to eating in the absence of homeostatic hunger. This explains in part why individuals desire and eat dessert even though they are full after a meal. Questions remain whether increases in liking and wanting cause overeating and obesity, whether obesity causes abnormally strong liking and wanting, or whether liking and wanting do not influence body weight.


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1Monteleone P, Piscitelli F, Scognamiglio P, Monteleone AM, Canestrelli B, Di Marzo V, Maj M. Hedonic eating is associated with increased peripheral levels of ghrelin and the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol in healthy humans: a pilot study.J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Jun; 97(6):E917-24.

2Berthoud HR. Metabolic and hedonic drives in the neural control of appetite: who is the boss? Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2011 Dec; 21(6):888-96.

3Vucetic Z, Reyes TM. Central dopaminergic circuitry controlling food intake and reward: implications for the regulation of obesity. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Syst Biol Med. 2010 Sep-Oct; 2(5):577-93.

4Berridge KC, Ho CY, Richard JM, DiFeliceantonio AG. The tempted brain eats: pleasure and desire circuits in obesity and eating disorders Brain Res. 2010 Sep 2; 1350:43-64

5Kringelbach ML, O’Doherty J, Rolls ET, Andrews C. Activation of the human orbitofrontal cortex to a liquid food stimulus is correlated with its subjective pleasantness. Cereb Cortex. 2003; 13:1064-71